PhD research student Helen Stinson considers fundamental questions about the welfare safety net, prompted by her time working with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Three months ago I started my internship at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. As co-funders to my PhD, they offered me this opportunity to complement my academic studies and enhance my understanding of the role that evidence based research has in influencing policy and practice.
On my first day I was set the task to review a number of current welfare benefits to find out if there were any recommended policy changes that could reduce levels of poverty in Britain. With more than 31 different welfare benefits to review, this was initially quite a daunting assignment! But, with the support of the anti-poverty campaign team, my initial apprehension developed into a deepened appreciation for the importance of exploring the origins and history of different welfare benefits. Through this valuable experience, I have gained further insight into current political debates. I’ve learnt that it is critical to recognise the tensions that underlie political debates on the different policy reforms.
One of the most interesting discussions that recurred as I read various reports was on whether all citizens should be entitled to access state financial resources, or if a benefit should be designed so that it concentrates support on those with the lowest incomes. This is a familiar political debate that at its polarised extremes becomes a choice between two different types of social policy. On one side welfare support is considered to be a social right for all British citizens; on the other it is believed that state support should be selectively focused on those individuals judged to be in most need.
As I explored this debate I realised that it had already influenced many recent policy changes. For example, in 2013 a ‘high income’ charge was introduced to Child Benefit for those households earning over £50,000. Essentially, this policy change taxes high income families in receipt of Child Benefit and creates the potential for the reclaimed revenues to be focused on those households closest to poverty. It is seemingly a reasonable policy amendment that could potentially reduce the poverty of low income families. But this substantial restructure of Child Benefit has led many to argue that by no longer recognising that all families undertake extra costs when providing for a child, these changes have wider social ramifications.
In particular, the change opens a discussion about what we as a society believe should be the role of the welfare system in modern Britain. The conversation moves beyond purely one that explores the specific economic impact of a benefit based on levels of poverty, to a discussion of what type of support the state should provide – and how this should be organised and structured.
During my internship, I realised that my task extended further than an evidence review of different policy recommendations. I was challenged to consider how my work could be incorporated into the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s ambition to provide a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy. I have become increasingly aware that although it is crucial that we as a society reduce levels of poverty through an effective and efficient welfare benefit system, it is also vital that any recommended policy amendments are understood to reflect our overall vision of a fair British society. My time working alongside the anti-poverty team has taught me that failure to recognise this has the potential to undermine the eradication of poverty in Britain. So, as my PhD develops, I will strive to ensure that my own research remains mindful of these fundamental political debates.