Why would the social justice sector welcome the commodification of the people it cares about?
People are complicated. Life always has another nasty twist else to throw at the weakest. Disadvantages breed and feed off each other. Real people face multi-complex mixtures of poor housing, poor health, debt, violence, and a series of petty but frightening entanglements with the ‘safety net’ state. Local community organisations can be life-savers precisely because they don’t focus on one issue but on whole people.
Why would I dare to suggest, then, that we might welcome a points-based system that sets a value to the individual on the basis of their various disadvantages? Surely ‘differential payments’ whereby a welfare to work provider would get more money for someone with more points, just entrenches the commodification of benefit claimants. I hate the way the Dept for Work and Pensions talks about ‘the welfare stock’ like so many products to be shifted off a shelf. But as someone who believes passionately in local social justice, I’ve spent years looking for welfare solutions that recognise distance travelled and value the small moves a person can take towards a more independent, more engaged life lived locally. I think the points system could be part of it.
Our proposals for the Community Allowance would allow community organisations to pay local people to do the work that needs doing in neighbourhoods without affecting their benefits and wrapped round with the support that only trusted, rooted local civil society can offer. Most of the work that needs doing is part-time, sessional or short-term – these are new kinds of job altogether, a phantom economy that should exist but doesn’t. While we wait for Iain Duncan dynamic benefits system, let’s focus on these small-scale win-win-win opportunities.
The move towards large-scale contractors in ‘the welfare industry’ is hurtling towards its logical conclusion. Private providers will raise private finance for working capital to cash-flow ‘black box’ employment support programmes across huge regions. Government will use the benefit savings to buy outcomes after 12 months – getting someone into a job – and then again at 24 and 36 months for keeping them in work. If everyone is treated the same and there are no rewards for the steps towards employability the temptation to cherry-pick the ‘easy’ ones is irresistible.
Imagine that Lisa is a single mother with 3 children and a history of drug use, John has just left prison, Hanan is up to her eyes in debt and Priya is fighting a custody battle that makes him angry and depressed. All have been assessed and they average 22 points on a scale that goes to 30. They are all getting support from and working on the Community Allowance through the community anchor organisation Downtown Trust. Over the course of a year the trust supports them to make progress in their lives and experience some real but very flexible work. At the end of the year their average points reduce to 9. Now they’re in a space where a private provider could help and within another year three of them are in work. At this stage the provider would get much less money for them, not just at the point of job placement but for each of the next two years (average 9 points x 3 outcomes x 3 years =81). But if the provider had grant-funded or contracted with Downtown Trust from the start they could be said to ‘own’ the points our four friends began with and could be rewarded accordingly (22x3x3 =198). If the claimable benefits savings payment was £300 per point per year the changed lives of these four people would have contributed an additional £23,000 which could refund the provider for cost of the grant/contract to Downtown.
There are lots of assumptions here and it would need to be modelled to make sure it was viable for everyone involved. But at the core of the idea is the simple valuing of support to help people deal with the barriers in their complicated lives, the development of a business model that can legitimately and sustainably reward those who provide that support best, and the creation of a new kind of community-based mini-job that transforms the way local neighbourhood regeneration gets done.