Baldrick’s Book of Cunning Plans

By skepticlawyer

The Welfare State is not doing so well in Blighty of late, largely due to two memorable social services cock-ups, Baby P and Shannon Matthews.

That said, for the first time I can remember, people are beginning to go behind the story of the social worker who failed to intervene and ask serious questions about both welfare provision and the erosion of personal responsibility. Social workers can only take so much blame: Karen Matthews fooled the watching eyes of the British press as adroitly as both she and Baby P’s parents fooled their social workers. The national conversation on the issue is both confused and confusing, but the broad contours are beginning to become clear.

DeusExMacintosh‘s cartoon — and the comic ineptitude with which Karen Matthews executed her plan — are both amusing, if we keep the narrative on the level of conspiracies and cock-ups. Underneath it all, however, is something dreadful.

Inspired in part by the media response to the McCanns, Karen Matthews staged the kidnap of her own daughter with a view to obtaining a reward (the Sun offered £50,000 at one point). The British media — chastened after its half-arsed attempt at turning the McCanns into Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, and at a nagging suspicion that Karen Matthews, a poor mother on a council estate, would get short shrift when compared with the middle-class, tertiary educated and photogenic McCanns — whipped up the usual exercise in confected outrage.

Citizens on the poor council estate of Moorside, Dewsbury rallied around, however, doing their best to offer support and publicise Shannon’s disappearance. At the time, I remembered thinking that there was something odd about both Karen Matthews and some of the people who sought to help her. They seemed to be feeding off the media attention. In Matthews’ case, this looked more explicable — she wanted her daughter back. But the performing for the cameras from some of the other inhabitants struck both DeusExMacintosh and me as weird and very unsettling. ‘Like trained seals,’ DEM commented at one point. In the end, of course, it was unrelieved weirdness all round. The media were doling out plenty of tasty titbits, too, something that one or two brave souls spotted:

Buried away on today’s Guardian letters page is one of those short-and-to-the-point protests from a reader. If so many journalists who spoke to Karen Matthews and her dysfunctional family failed to rumble the fake kidnapping of nine-year-old Shannon, perhaps they will now be less judgmental about social workers who make similar mistakes, suggests Richard Moore of Bletchley.

Good point. Fat chance. Since her conviction yesterday of kidnapping Shannon to obtain a reward they hoped would be as much as £50,000, “Heartbreak Mum” Karen Matthews has been recast as “pure evil” across the Sun’s front page this morning. […]

There was nothing about the role of the media in either modifying or accentuating weaker aspects of human behaviour, as distinct from human nature, which we know all about, thanks.

Slowly, the best aspects of British policing came to the fore — the national talent for forensic search and attention to detail — and Matthews’ cunning plan unravelled around her. The little girl was found — safe if not exactly well — in the home of a distant male relative. She had been drugged to keep her quiet, not just for the 24 days of her ordeal, but for several years. The story rapidly got a great deal worse: the details of Karen Matthews’ broken life spilled out of the ordered setting of a Yorkshire courtroom for all the world to see:

The case is important, not because of what she did, horrible though that was, but what she has exposed. She opened our eyes to an underclass that most of us ignored or hoped would just go away.

Matthews is the mother of seven children by five different men. She has never worked, but lived off benefits of £286.60 a week. The Matthews’s house was filthy. A neighbour declared, “I wouldn’t want to keep a pet dog in there, let alone children.” Her relationships with men were so promiscuous that when police built up a family tree it stretched to 300 names.

Karen’s nine-year-old daughter Shannon was regularly drugged to keep her quiet, had feet encrusted with dirt, was infested with head lice and flinched at any sudden noise. Police found a note scribbled by Shannon to her brother: “Do you think we will get any tea tonight? If we’re quiet we might get a bag of sweets. Don’t talk too loud or get a beating.” This was in a family receiving in benefits the equivalent of £20,000 a year before tax. Seven children were going hungry to bed, not because of social deprivation but because their mother could not be bothered to feed them [editorial note – only 4 of the children were living with Matthews at the time; the others had been taken into care, or were living with their fathers].

Like the murderers beautifully assayed in Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood, Matthews and Donovan, her accomplice, engaged in a courtroom exercise in Mutually Assured Destruction. Both sought to shift the blame onto the other, particularly as to who instigated the plot and carried it through. Both, however, were determined to be seen as victims, people to be pitied:

As Karen Matthews – Shannon’s mother – and her accomplice, Donovan, tried to blame each other for the plan that led to the girl’s incarceration, their most consistent emotion was self-pity. Matthews’ stock response as her five differing accounts of events were unpicked by the prosecution was an indignant: ‘It were nothing to do with me.’ There were moments in her cross-examination when it seemed she would have to face up to the terrible thing she had done – risked her daughter’s life for money. But in court she maintained her self-righteous sense of grievance to the end. She was, in her own mind, the victim in all of this. Donovan, toothless and apparently barely strong enough to speak, also claimed to have had no say in the matter: ‘Karen told me I had to follow the plan.’ […] Watching her give evidence, though, there seemed much more to it than that: it was as if she had wanted the world to pity her as she pitied herself. The tears she gave to the TV cameras on the breakfast-time sofas were real enough, but they were never for her daughter, they were for the mess of her own life.

In court, Matthews gave away her guilt long before she took the witness stand. While the cruel details of Shannon’s time with Donovan emerged – the handwritten list of rules that required her not to make a sound, the Temazepam (a drug she been forced to take for two years) to keep her compliant, the elastic strap that allowed her only to reach the lavatory – Matthews sat, arms folded, sullenly defensive; Shannon’s terrors and deprivations were clearly, she believed, ‘nothing to do with her’. She eventually broke down in tears in the dock not because she recognised the nightmare she had visited on her own daughter but because she was being made to carry the can for a plot she claimed involved many others, particularly her estranged partner, Craig Meehan (who was not called to give evidence). It wasn’t fair. She still, she allowed herself to think, ‘loved Shannon to bits’.

The constant self-pity led one exasperated police officer to describe the pair as ‘pure evil’ after the trial, something people on all sides of the welfare debate have rightly dismissed as pure hyperbole. I carry no brief for personal irresponsibility or ‘society did it, arrest society’ rhetoric, but any evil in Karen Matthews was put there by a system designed to drain initiative and personal responsibility away from the individual. Karen Matthews was — quite simply — being paid to keep having children. If you increase demand (and the payment of money is a good proxy for demand), then supply will follow as night follows day. It has emerged over time that not only Karen Matthews, but many others — unable or unwilling to work — have children in order to increase their access to state benefits. It is not something many people have wanted to acknowledge — until now. The Tories are ducking and weaving because the problem was well-known when Thatcher was Prime Minister and yet nothing was done. Labour is in an even bigger mess because unconditional welfare started when Callaghan was Prime Minister.

Now, of course, they’re all running about offering band-aid solutions — usually half-arsed versions of the mutual obligation programs Bill Clinton introduced in the US, or the ‘work for the dole’ schemes both John Howard and Kevin Rudd are enamored of in Australia. Make them do job training. Scrap their benefits if they fail to turn up for a job interview. Allow health inspectors into their festering homes. Apart from costing the taxpayer money (more bureaucracy, more box-ticking), this will achieve little. Some High Tories of my acquaintance are looking to Sweden, with its generous benefits but punishing regime of ‘workfare’ coupled with heavy intervention in the benefit recipient’s private life. The hard decision — to cap benefits at a fixed number of children and make abortion liberally available — is too scary for most, although some of the Tories are beginning to look at it with real seriousness:

You can call her a slob, a sponger, all the rest of it. But she didn’t do anything illegal. She was simply responding to an offer being made by the state: have kids, get a free house and cash. If the state paves a road to this kind of lifestyle, is it any surprise that some people follow it? 
At the Tory conference, I was on a CPS panel where a member of the audience asked if we believed girls really would have a child to acquire more benefits – as if the very notion were preposterous. Shaun Bailey, a fellow at the CPS and Tory PPC for Hammersmith, replied: “Gals getting knocked up to get housing? It’s a cottage industry where I come from.” The conference went quiet. He was the only one in the room who actually came from a deprived housing estate, and knew what he was talking about. 
Yet these mothers are following a trail laid for them by a government. I say blame the trail, not the people who follow it. People everywhere follow trails laid down for them. Born in the right place, and that trail leads to university and a job. If you’re born in the wrong place, that trail leads to welfare dependency and poverty. Sure, you can deviate from this trail, but it’s a broad rule of thumb. This is the social apartheid in Britain today, the product not of unbridled market forces but of the perverse incentives of a mutated welfare state that is now breeding the poverty it was designed to abolish.

This proposal still involves unconditional welfare, which the supporters of mutual obligation will no doubt decry. Certainly, the Matthews case is one to give advocates of unconditional welfare serious pause. ‘Sit-down money’ — to use the lapidary phrase popular among Australia’s Aboriginal community — is a very bad thing. Mutual obligation, however, is both more expensive and less effective, because it does not tackle the problem at its root: perverse incentives. Instead, it bullies people based on the source of their income, treating them all as though they are potential cheats and bludgers.

If welfare is to be unconditional, it must be kept low, and the cut-offs must be clear. Like the rule of law, its rules should be general, prospective and applicable to all. Yes, I have to concede that cases like Karen Matthews make the argument for unconditional welfare much more difficult. It’s an argument I doubt that the resurgent libertarian group within the Tory party now has any hope of winning. Instead, we are likely to get both welfare cuts and mutual obligation, a toxic combination that will presume everyone seeking assistance from the state is a member of the class of ‘undeserving poor’.


  1. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted December 9, 2008 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    To misquote Joseph Merrick – “I am not an underclass, I am a human being!”. I’ll start with an admission of interest – I live on welfare. I do live in social housing but not on a deprived housing estate, nor am I a mother of multiple kids by multiple fathers (if ONLY I were getting that much sex). I am disabled and I’ve got the Disability Living Allowance to prove it.

    As such I should probably be satisfied to be regarded as one of the ‘worthy’ poor, but I’m not. Like everyone else, I can find very little good to say about Karen Matthews but am perhaps more cautious about claiming “it were the Welfare State wot dun it”. Is there financial incentive to live as she has done? Personally I think it’s overstated. Supposedly, the ability to defer gratification and think long term is the talent most lacking in families like the Matthews so the siren call of an extra £20 a week in nine months time, rising by another £20 each six months (assuming back to back pregnancies) doesn’t seem that tempting. Nor does the average six year wait for a place in social housing.

    The way social housing DOES provide an incentive is slightly different. Thanks to the massive underfunding of investment in construction by local authorities since Mrs Thatcher launched ‘right to buy’ for council tenants in the 1980s, the market rate for private rents in the UK is so high that it’s impossible to survive on benefits UNLESS you’re in a council house. This is because only social housing rents are low enough to be 100% covered by Housing Benefit. Can you live on £50 a week Income Support? Just about. Can you live on £50 a week Income Support when paying £15 of that to cover the difference between your rent and the maximum Housing Benefit you’re allowed? Uh … no. This is why I think SL has it wrong when she says welfare rates are set too high – if anything I’d argue that a decade of easy sub-prime credit is the only reason it’s even been possible to keep them this low without the return of old-style, industrial revolution standards of poverty.

    You could eliminate that particular incentive by doing away with social housing entirely of course. Or welfare. This was the idea behind the old work-houses – offering living conditions so dire you’d really have to be starving to resort to them. Strangely, despite this pretty impressive DIS-incentive, places were still in considerable demand.

    What the Welfare State HAS achieved, is a level of self-respect for those genuinely disadvantaged by ill health or ill luck rather than forcing them to be mendicants. In my opinion the price of losing this would be far too high – but then, I’m biased.

  2. Posted December 9, 2008 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    You’ll have to wear mutual obligation, then – as the Swedes do it (both Labour and Tories are now gazing enviously at the Swedish model). Relatively high rates of welfare, punishingly high personal taxation, and mass intervention in people’s personal lives. Quite a few people have pointed out in various places – including on one of the Guardian forums – that in Sweden, a woman like Karen Matthews would likely have been institutionalised. In a mental hospital. At about child three.

  3. pedro
    Posted December 9, 2008 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    I don’t think you can or should remove the welfare state or unconditional welfare, though I am in favour of work incentives. The problem of poorly cared for children is not going to be solved by capping welfare. No doubt plenty of stupid people will have more children than they can afford under the cap.

    Incentives do matter, but there is more to the Matthews type than welfare benefits. Without following the story beyond this post, I’d suspect that she is pretty stupid and stupid people will always have problems of various types. Perhaps she’s also some sort of sociopath.

    What should happen is the removal of children early and permanently. No doubt kids are better with their own parents if those parents are functional, but if not it is better to remove them quick smart. The fostering system in Australia is also disfunctional and too much disruption is caused by trying to give bad parents 4th, 8th and 100th chances to stuff up again. So take the kids and put them with people who really want them and will care for them as their own children.

  4. Posted December 9, 2008 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    A bit on the Swedish system – these guys take mutual obligation very seriously. That said, once you get past the invasiveness of it, the programs are well-designed — although the cost must be huge. Quite a few places make the point that this type of personal intervention has historically been part of Swedish culture, too, so when applied to the welfare state, it’s more accepted.

  5. AJ
    Posted December 9, 2008 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Incentives matter at the margin. There are many people on the dole that wish to work, but are discouraged by high EMTs or other barriers. But there are some people, like Karen Matthews, who are either completely unwilling or completely unsuitable to perform paid work, and no amount of incentives are going to persuade them otherwise.

  6. Posted December 9, 2008 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    High EMTRs are a huge problem – even the Swedes haven’t found a way around that one. They just keep hassling people until they find work, or are forced to do some form of ‘workfare’. The Libertarian solution to high EMTRs has always been a high tax free threshold followed by a flat tax. That at least confines EMTRs to a single, predictable level (usually 30 or 40%). That aside, I don’t think Matthews or many like her could do much in the way of work, but multiple studies have shown that even very stupid people respond to incentives designed to manage sexual and relationship behaviour. Klick and Stratmann’s big study demonstrated that abortion notification laws reduce risky sexual activity among teenage girls (by measuring STD and teen pregnancy rates), while Wolfers showed a link between liberal divorce laws and reduced rates of domestic violence. If applying the right incentives leads to people like Matthews stopping at two without the state engaging in paternalistic ‘benefit recipient management’, then I’m all for it.

    LE: when I had my stint at the Home Office in 1999-2001, at one point I was allocated to a school in London that had no library. None. Not a single book, DVD or anything else. I’ve never seen anything like it. That school is now one of the flash new Academies, and although the results are still pretty bad, they’re better than they were before.

  7. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted December 9, 2008 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Not just the Swedes with “punishingly high personal taxation, and mass intervention in people’s personal lives.” As someone on means tested benefits my Effective Marginal Tax rate is over 90% and everyone apart from the dog catcher at the local council is authorised to snoop into my bank accounts and personal circumstances on a whim – no warrant, no application to a magistrate. Should I worry if this privilege is extended to everyone else?

    (And unfortunately Sweden was still putting ‘anti-social’ ethnic minorities – read Gypsies – in asylums and only releasing them if they agreed to sterilisation as late as the 1990s. Am not sure that is the model to follow either.)

  8. Posted December 9, 2008 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    The Swedes get riper than that, DEM. I’ve just been sent a case study by one of my OUCA chums where a significant portion of an obese man’s benefits were voucherised so that he could only spend them on ‘healthy’ food. And his shopping trips were then supervised by a ‘home visitor’! I am fighting a rearguard action to the best of my ability on this but right now it ain’t looking good.

  9. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted December 9, 2008 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Hmm … you think if I moved to Sweden they’d pay for my Powerjog and a personal trainer?

  10. rb
    Posted December 9, 2008 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    No-one would dare mention abolition of welfare but how much worse could this woman’s living conditions be if she wasn’t receiving free money each fortnight? Would the community be upset if she had to work 35 hours a week to get the same payment?

    I don’t think complete removal of benefits is the answer, especially for people with disabilities but I think there are times when recipients would, arguably, not be any worse off if they received no welfare payments at all.

  11. Posted December 9, 2008 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    As cunning as a fox who has a degree in cunning from Oxford University? No. As cunning as a bag of lard what’s been run over by a van.

    This is the telling bit:

    Karen’s nine-year-old daughter Shannon was regularly drugged to keep her quiet, had feet encrusted with dirt, was infested with head lice and flinched at any sudden noise. Police found a note scribbled by Shannon to her brother: “Do you think we will get any tea tonight? If we’re quiet we might get a bag of sweets. Don’t talk too loud or get a beating.”

    Is ‘society’ to blame? Or is it Karen? And if so maybe Karen can blame it on whoever had her and back to viscosity.

    Whatever, it’s a problem.

    The streets of Melbourne are riddled with people that a (Marxist) lecturer of mine once called the non-bourgeoised working class. That is people who haven’t come very far since c 900 BCE. Various debates between the Left and Right, I think, bely certain blind spots. After all consider the case of Jordan Anderson. A baby in Wagga Wagga. The same mileu is recognized. Rampant reproductive irresponsibility, childhoods full of abuse, lives lived for chemical oblivion – all on the public tit.

    I find it puzzling. Alien. Where is the self-respect or even simple empathy?

    The welfare policies here have become more draconian and the result isn’t an increase in the ‘underclass’ getting jobs but in homelessness and violence. And also, I’ve noticed, t-shirts with fascist messages: interestingly ‘bogan’ and ‘white supremacy’ are going together these days.

    The social cause/individual responsibility dichotomy might be misleading. After all what chance does a kid whose barely fed, not loved, learns next to nothing and is accustomed to violence, have of making it in a technologically complex world where one needs a certificate to wash dishes? On the other hand if ‘society is to blame’ aren’t you providing an excuse that lets anyone with bad memories do whatever they want? Last year a bunch of boys at Werribee High School sexually abused a girl, videotaped it, sold it to the school and the judge sentenced them to …therapy!!!

    I don’t think the freedom paradigm or the social justice paradigm is going to work. The former is based on the assumption of an individual sovereignty that doesn’t exist in this case. People are animals and when they have a cracked culture they behave and act and think (or not) like animals. Social justice provides a melange of excuses and says “poor darling, we pity you and it’s not your fault. True or not it won’t help.

    Frank Miller and Alan Moore both wrote dystopian graphic novels in the 90s. The heroine in both was a girl who’d grown up in an underclass ghetto, secured away from the main population – routinely violent, cage-like, beyond all standards of what we call civilization. A jailhouse neighbourhood.

    I think that’s where it’s going. And one of the reasons is that our ideas about the problem are wrapped up either in sentimental (left wing) hog wash, or in harsh (right wing) lack of understanding.

    Meantime I saw four incidents of ultra-violence on the week-end. This included two guys getting attacked by eight boys. One of whom stole a chair from a restaurant and hit his victims over the head – on Melbourne’s
    main street. Why? Because the guy wouldn’t give him a cigarette!

    And this is normal. In fact the Monday papers, despite being chock full of battlefield pix of Sat night on the town said crime’s down from last year. And it is. The incident described above was relatively mild.

    This keeps going and the eventual State reaction’ll to make Sweden’s policies look like a functional anarchist collective.

  12. Posted December 9, 2008 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    This keeps going and the eventual State reaction’ll to make Sweden’s policies look like a functional anarchist collective.

    This is what worries me. I’m pretty sure the UK will go down the heavy paternalism route, which means someone like DEM will have to account for everything the state gives her, submit to having her personal life micromanaged and so on down the line because there are people like Adrien describes running around. I’ve already had an argument with one chap who thinks that women below a certain income level who have more than two children to different fathers should be compulsory sterilized, while men who father more than two children by different partners should have a compulsory vasectomy. Of course all this only applies to benefit recipients and non-payers of maintenance. And it will be policed using the UK’s massive DNA database. It’s extraordinarily punitive.

    A lot can be achieved with well-designed incentives, yet that is somehow considered more punitive than turning up in people’s homes and submitting them to boot camp.

    Would the community be upset if she had to work 35 hours a week to get the same payment?

    This is genuine ‘workfare’; it’s common in Scandinavia. If they can’t push you into a job, you work for your welfare benefits in a job of their choosing. It has the merit of clarity but is still very punitive.

  13. Posted December 9, 2008 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    women below a certain income level who have more than two children to different fathers should be compulsory sterilized, while men who father more than two children by different partners should have a compulsory vasectomy.

    I’ve seen this one coming for a long time Skeptic. And after that kind of intrusion becomes commonplace, after biotech takes off I wonder where it leads.

    Everything’s economics and poliitics, no ethics. What can you do?

  14. rb
    Posted December 9, 2008 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    SL – I meant, if there was no welfare and the wage she earned was equal to what she got on the dole, would people be upset?

    There seems to be a school of thought that deems it ok to have people not working on a long term basis and collecting welfare whereas if they were earning the same amount but had to work full-time to do it, society’s failing the poor.

    I’ve never understood the difference in outlook, having the view that even if that were the case, it’s more dignified than receiving something for nothing and developing an ‘entitlement’ mentality.

    And I’m still a little puzzled at the idea that ‘workfare’ is punitive, as if being required to work for payment is a punishment when the government is paying you but is the norm when an employer is handing over the cheques.

  15. Posted December 9, 2008 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    ‘Workfare’ is combined with a great deal of personal policing that no employer would ever try on – that’s the problem I have with it. It’s high level paternalism, in that people are (very often) told what to eat, where to shop (and what they may buy) and who they may form relationships with. With some of the Clinton reforms and in many Swedish cases, women may only live with the biological fathers of their children. They are fine to leave that man, but if they move in with another, they get their benefits cut.

    Your employer cares that you do your job – turn up on time, don’t stick your fingers in the till, go home when your shift is over (this is the job pattern for most of the working poor). The problem with workfare is that it divides people into categories based on the source of their income, and micromanages the lives of only some (poor) people. It’s also staggeringly expensive and often doesn’t work.

    My concern is two-fold:

    1. Economically, it is very difficult to justify relatively generous welfare (as currently exists in the UK).

    2. The standard response to abuse of generous welfare is – these days – to advocate paternalistic micromanagement of people’s lives. However, very often the problem is that welfare is high enough to generate moral hazard. Moorside Estate is ample evidence of that.

    I think it is both easier and fairer to deal with the moral hazard than to go about telling the poor how to live their lives. It’s also more likely to work. I should mention that the amount of money + in kind support that Karen Matthews was receiving on welfare is the equivalent to a solidly middle-class job (approx £20000 p/a). This is completely ridiculous and invites moral hazard of catastrophic proportions.

    The best way I can conceive of this is to ask paternalists how they would feel if paternalism were done to them – if they were told how to spend their money, what to eat, who to live with and so on. That tends to bring people up short. Most of us can imagine being broke and having to work hard to dig our way out of it (hey, I voluntarily went back to Grad school after being a well-remunerated lawyer). The idea that I should have to account for my personal choices to some government bureaucrat is like some science fiction nightmare.

  16. AJ
    Posted December 9, 2008 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    I really don’t think the problem is as bad or as big as people are making it out to be. 1) Re: Adrian’s point: I live in the fortitude valley and I don’t see much violence and when I do, it’s just as likely to be coming from drunken suburban, middle-class teenagers, as the local denizens. 2) Most single parents, even those on the dole, I have met are not underclass baby factories, they are (previously middle class) divorcees, who find it difficult to live on a single (usually part-time wage) and be a fulltime single parent.

    No doubt the baby factories are out their, but even among them, I would bet types like Karen Matthews would be extreme outliers, not the norm.

  17. Posted December 9, 2008 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Australia is nowhere near as bad as the UK — although as Adrien points out, it still goes on. By and large Australia has gone with a moderate version of the Clinton-style system, which does reduce the number of people on welfare rolls but — surprise surprise — isn’t saving the state any money. The UK did some very silly things in the 70s for which it is paying now. This gives some sense of the scale of the problem. It dwarfs defence and education, and is rapidly catching the NHS.

  18. Posted December 9, 2008 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    I think it is both easier and fairer to deal with the moral hazard than to go about telling the poor how to live their lives. It’s also more likely to work. I should mention that the amount of money + in kind support that Karen Matthews was receiving on welfare is the equivalent to a solidly middle-class job (approx £20000 p/a). This is completely ridiculous and invites moral hazard of catastrophic proportions.

    Good stuff SL. I fear the problem is also prevalent in Australia. If you are down and out on the dole and perceive no real prospects of ever improving your situation then having children brings so many immediate benefits that it seems like a reasonable substitute to actually trying to find a way out of the predicament. However if you have no dependents and rely on the govt then life is Hell.

    If and when people have despaired that much there may well be very good reasons for it. It could be that the only jobs they can obtain are so boring and shitty and ill-paid that the trade off is worthwhile. To outsiders it may seem that these people are just lazy bludgers but if you spent any lengthy period of time doing those menial jobs it is not too hard to perceive how the prospect of a lifetime of such work is thoroughly frightening. The alternative, a little work here and there, punching out a couple of kids to make sure you get public housing, sympathy, and lots of money, is much more attractive. This can lead to a second level effect in the moral hazard because the children raised in such environments are susceptible to becoming lifelong welfare recipients themselves. In Australia the golden number of children apparently is 4, that is when you can live very comfortably off welfare. Take away the parents welfare and the children suffer not only in the present but their future prospects can be seriously eroded and this because of their parents. What are governments to do? The problem created by excessive welfare is perpetuated across generations and becomes entrenched.We have created a monster and it is growing with each generation.

    It is not enough to just remove welfare and expect that suddenly these people will be motivated towards a more responsible life. It certainly can happen that they will enter into less than legal forms of making a living. The big difference between countries like Sweden and Britain is that the Swedes make it almost impossible to continue to live off welfare, one way or the other if at all possible they will have you working again. In Britain though it appears that these people are just left to their own devices, as if somehow they are just going to change their behavior by “making the right decisions”. Obviously these people have made bad decisions and obviously they are incapable of leading a productive life. There is no evidence that pushing them towards starvation and homelessness will induce any remarkable and beneficial change in behavior. The evidence is mostly the other way: they will remarkably change their behavior towards criminality, psychopathology, and alienation.

    The easiest way to eliminate the moral hazard is to make it perfectly obvious to every capable person that they can never expect to remain on welfare indefinitely. If you’re going to have generous welfare then you are going to need a means by which it is impossible for work capable people to avoid work. As in Denmark, if you’re unemployed for a year they get you a job. This requires a different ethos in the employer community. Employers must be willing to take on these “bludgers”. In Australia at least it is typically the exact opposite, the longer you are unemployed the less likely an employer is willing to give you a chance. Vicious circle which explains why long term unemployment numbers have barely shifted despite a radical lowering of the overall unemployment rate.

    The Swedes have a point, if you are not disabled and won’t work, thereby being dependent on the State for your existence, then the State is entitled to find a way to help you stop being a burden on the rest of society. As one Australian study found, even one year of unemployment can extinguish many of the behaviors necessary to maintain a job. However I do not think it is necessary to examine the person’s life, often a person just needs that chance to get started again but sometimes people lose all hope. Been there, done that, and still doing that.

    This is an extremely difficult problem and I have neither time nor inclination to find new ways to think about it. I am not a lone ranger in that regard, it is obvious that many governments have all but given up on finding new ways to address this problem. They have become resigned to accepting the consequences of moral hazard. It isn’t just “Shameless” people who lose hope of improving their situation, obviously many governments have absolutely no idea how to address this issue.

    For people in those housing estates it is usually too late to change their behavior. Adult human beings are not adept at “turning over a new leaf”, it is the exception not the rule. Being “Shameless” has it virtues. Our only hope is the children and even that is problematic. Many studies indicate that difficult childhood circumstances very much raises the odds for a difficult and trouble filled life. This was highlighted in research released in the last few days. It was found that children from poor backgrounds had EEG profiles (electrical measurements of brain function) similiar to those with brain injury. In particular the results suggested impaired “executive functions”. Such a result does not surprise me too much. Even studies on “enriched environments” make it perfectly obvious that the maturational years play a fundamental role in our future prospects and children have little to no control over those years. An enriched environment stimulates neurogenesis and even provides protection against the impacts of brain trauma. The disturbing and obvious fact emerging from such studies is that in any given population raised under very impoverished circumstances it is only natural to expect lower iqs, greater rates of psychopathology, less stress response control, and higher rates of criminality.

    Now I must careful here because Adrien prevents me engaging in neurospeak so to put it simply: the development of so-called executive functions( I don’t like the concept) is fundamental to cerebral maturation and the ability to work towards a better life. These functions are very important in developing the types of behaviors that are vital in our society and any society for that matter; excepting perhaps a few terrorist cultures. An early childhood environment that mitigates against the maturation of executive functions can in effect be a disability and there is very little if any evidence that interventions in adulthood will address what is a significant cerebral deficit. Ghettos multiply the moral hazard.

    Oh fair enough I can think of ways to address the moral hazard problem but these are so outlandish I dare not mention the same under my own name. I’ve copped enough abuse on the net so I’m not going to encourage anymore.

  19. Posted December 9, 2008 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    It is not enough to just remove welfare and expect that suddenly these people will be motivated towards a more responsible life

    As dreadful as it sounds, it’s not really possible to change incentives for people already in this situation. If one were to cap welfare at two children, say, it would need to be done prospectively – ie to come into force 10 months from now, say. This allows people to adjust to the new incentives. To try to apply such a rule retrospectively would be unjust in the most basic rule of law sense — passing a law today but expecting compliance with that law yesterday. This is something that can realistically only be improved over time.

    And a batch of other things need fixing, too — high EMTRs are the biggie, but making adoption easier (pedro’s point aways up the thread) would no doubt help, too.

  20. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted December 10, 2008 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    An early childhood environment that mitigates against the maturation of executive functions can in effect be a disability and there is very little if any evidence that interventions in adulthood will address what is a significant cerebral deficit. Ghettos multiply the moral hazard.

    That’s an interesting point, John. The documentary mentioned that Karen Matthews had been assessed as having a mild intellectual disability – perhaps this was what the tests really picked up? Haven’t read anything to indicate whether she herself was second generation welfare culture.

    RB – the issue with ‘workfare’ is a wider one. In the UK it seems basically fair to have someone like Matthews work and get get the same amount of money as welfare – for the kind of low-skill jobs that are freely available rates are very similar. The disincentive is that on benefits you get ‘in kind’ support (free prescriptions and various discounts plus housing and council tax benefits) which you lose in low paid work. It means that while working for the same money, you actually end up worse off than if you stayed on welfare. Not surprisingly, the choice to stay on benefits is entirely rational in these circumstances. You’d need to somehow economically engineer a higher minimum-wage (SL has suggested immigration restrictions might do this) to eliminate the disparity. Of course punitive measures against those on welfare seem a lot easier to governments than this type of incentive correction which requires a balancing of interests (British Industry quite likes its cheap labour thank you very much).

    The main worry seems to be what then happens to pay rates when the market is flooded with all this free labour (‘free’ in that it has already been paid for by the government)? They’re likely to come down, and any attempts to incentivise employers to take on the long term unemployed will prejudice those already in low paid work. All you’ll get is ‘churn’, there wont be any actual savings. Australia used to give a bonus to employers taking on unemployed workers for up to a year. In some cases, yes this did lead to permanent jobs but in the vast majority … after a year you were dropped and the company brought in someone new to get another year of bonuses. Churn.

    Public policy is hard. I do think that future governments are going to have to give up trying to ‘outsource’ solutions and take the responsibility back where it belongs. We have a large civil service for a reason. USE it.

  21. Posted December 10, 2008 at 2:18 am | Permalink

    I’m just stripping out some of the data from the welfare spending site. Housing represents small beans, as does unemployment benefit. Disability support doesn’t even appear. Apart from social services (where the Baby P issue falls) and support for ‘families and children’ (where the Karen Matthews issue falls), we’re looking at a relatively lean welfare state with two huge spendthrifts gobbling all the pork.

    I think it may be possible to ‘keyhole’ this, by precisely targetting the bloat in relevant areas. That would mean a pretty drastic cut in support for single mothers – ‘cap at two’, or even ‘cap at one’ would deal with the bloat in the ‘families and children’ area. Making adoption much easier and intervention much quicker would no doubt bring the social services costs down over time. You’d also get an enhanced ‘adoption effect’ for poor women onto baby three who knew there would be no state support for it.

    Everybody wins. Although there will be a huge shitfight over hopping into benefits for mothers — most people have a ridiculously sentimental view of motherhood. Keeping the changes prospective will deal with much of this, but it also means there won’t be an immediate effect, which — in light of the Matthews case — is what people currently want.

  22. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted December 10, 2008 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    Disability has been put under the ‘pensions’ category.

  23. Posted December 10, 2008 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    Shit, you’re right. And it’s pretty big (although still dwarfed by social services).

  24. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted December 10, 2008 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    Yep. Based on these figures, we’re just going to have to start killing old people. Start at eighty and progressively bring the threshold down over a couple of decades until it reaches the optimal age of 30 when we can dress everyone in white robes with go-faster red flames and disintegrate them as public entertainment. (*Renew*-*Renew*-*Renew**).

  25. Posted December 10, 2008 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Soylent Green eh Deus? The pension problem is intractable. It is in part a result of modern medicine. We now can keep many people alive for another decade or so but at great expense. Short of denying people medical treatment there is no solution to this problem. If you look at health care costs, these start to spiral post 60 years of age. In the USA a study a few years ago found that health care costs were the second leading cause of middle class bankruptcy.

    We have a large civil service for a reason. USE it.

    I used to work in the public service. In that time there were plenty of people with disabilities employed therein and a large number of non-disabled who for various reasons would not survive in the private sphere. Howard changed all that, numbers of disabled people in the public service plummeted. We have made the workplace an area of strong competition and then wonder why increasing numbers can no longer compete there.

    perhaps this was what the tests really picked up?

    That is conceivable but in this case unlikely. Most of the time they simply measure cognitive function and that is not so dependent on executive functions. It depends on the type of intellectual disability. One can have even high iq and still have a brain injury which makes the person incapable of managing their life. Frontal\prefrontal lobe damage is strongly implicated here. Strangely enough frontal lobe damage may even increase iq. A person can be very smart and still make very stupid personal decisions. Most people still think that strong intelligence but bad behavior is indicative of “moral deficiency”. Studies clearly contradict this, time and again deficits in executive function come up as a key determinant in life outcomes. At the extreme end sociopaths often demonstrate orbitofrontal abnormalities but can be very bright. The orbitofrontals are just behind the eyes. One abstract I read years ago found found that in elderly people there was an inverse correlation between orbitofrontal function and working memory capacity. The lower this function the better the working memory capacity.

    In my view the welfare problem arises from a conflict with our sense of morality and economic imperatives. One way to escape this dilemma is to make economic imperatives the principle determinant of our moral sensibilities. Sure, that’ll work, so long as we are prepared to let the disabled starve to death.

  26. Posted December 10, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    john has already mentioned it. In many of “these kind of cases” I’m not all that surprised to see after searching that the person/s involved are borderline Intellectually Disabled. By borderline I mean that they will have a score of a few points above the cutoff for ID label and care. ( I think it’s around 70?).

    A person in care will be better protected and functioning and have a better life than a person with a score slightly above the cutoff but without the education ( in life skills) .

    [ I know that the score is not the only criteria]

    In many respects these are the people who miss out on the help they need. They are not neccessarily the conscious embodiment of evil. [one cannot neccessarily say the same about the press and it’s refusal to investigate]

  27. pedro
    Posted December 10, 2008 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    “A person in care will be better protected and functioning and have a better life than a person with a score slightly above the cutoff but without the education ( in life skills) .”

    I suppose that is probably correct, but there is a nice little point about when we should be able to put people into care. One must err on the side of caution before depriving people of freedom. The biggest judgement call is about whether the person in care will have a better life.

  28. Posted December 10, 2008 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    One must err on the side of caution before depriving people of freedom.

    Francis’ point is that by placing these people “in care” you enhance their future prospects of freedom. That is also the idea behind the Swede strategy, early intervention has a better long term prognosis.

    As Australia has so painfully learned, taking mentally ill people out of care and placing them into less care has resulted in a great many of them being placed in prison or left on the streets to rot.

  29. Posted December 10, 2008 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    pedro – I was refering to ID not mental (psychiatric) illness. There is no legal compulsion about care for ID persons.

    There is also much less compulsion in mental illness than popularly supposed.

    John – the arguments about care for the mentally ill on thestreets or prison are not related to the “de-institutionalisation” – but thats another argument.

  30. Posted December 10, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    John H – An early childhood environment that mitigates against the maturation of executive functions can in effect be a disability and there is very little if any evidence that interventions in adulthood will address what is a significant cerebral deficit.

    I zaid you coult nat zpeak in zee noorozpeak. You vill be dermindaded! 🙂

    Yeah stuff like reading to your kids before they get to school. My first school was exclusively populated by the children of highly educated people (from all over the world). So it gave me Utopian blinkers. The standards of the school were spectacular. It was genes no doubt to a certain extent but it was also upbringing. You can teach a kid an awful lot in the first couple of years.

    A friend of mine shacked up (and still is) with a stereotypical single mum. There was a 2 year old there who was bright and inquisitive and asked questions. The answer to all questions was a spanking or sit in front of the TV.

    When I graduated there weren’t any jobs. I felt blue. I went to one of these job agencies run by some welfare technocrat. Five minutes with him and I felt like pond scum. That’s me: degree, privileged background, gifts. Mmm. And he made me feel like shit about myself.

    Now exactly how does that help you get a job exactly? I reckon places like Blacktown are full of people who’ve been in the clutches of such as these all their lives.

  31. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted December 10, 2008 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    Soylent Green eh Deus?

    Monsters John, monsters from the id… 😉

  32. derrida derider
    Posted December 14, 2008 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Lets get some perspective here. The figures show that never-married single welfare mums with multiple fathers for their children exist but are actually fairly rare, at least in Australia (whose data I’m familiar with). And cases as extreme as Ms Matthews are much rarer – which is exactly why they make the newspapers.

    Yes, paying more welfare to single mums to have more children will, all else equal, increase the number of kids they have – but the hard evidence (mostly from econometric studies of variations in welfare payments across US states) is that the effect is tiny – so small it is hard to detect.

    The ‘reasoning’ that really annoys means is the one that goes “the underclass are on benefits, therefore benefits cause the underclass”. But even in biblical times they noticed the poor are always with ye. The causes of this level of disadvantage lie elsewhere.

  33. Posted December 14, 2008 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Britain is much worse than the US, Australia and Europe for this — and much worse than the very strong welfare states like Sweden or Denmark. This has already been discussed in the comments.

    Of course, there may be something catastrophically wrong with the Brits. Maybe they respond to different incentives — although somehow, I don’t think so.

  34. Posted December 15, 2008 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    But even in biblical times they noticed the poor are always with ye. The causes of this level of disadvantage lie elsewhere.


    You can laugh but these are the people that founded ‘Straya. 🙂

  35. Posted December 15, 2008 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    In any society there will always be a certain number who simply do not make it, fit in, become part of the “greater society”. This is one reason why the leftist argument of promoting inclusiveness has value, it helps reduce the number who cannot. Despite the rather ineffective nature of ant-discrimination laws these have helped make life a lot more tolerable for those left out in the rain.

    As I previously stated, we have a choice. Do we let economic realities determine the fate of people or is our society driven by values other than just economic determinism?

  36. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted December 17, 2008 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    The answers would seem to be yes, and no – respectively.

  37. Posted December 17, 2008 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Do we let economic realities determine the fate of people or is our society driven by values other than just economic determinism?

    I don’t think we have a choice in that matter. I agree with Marx that the modes of production will determine the range of political models and life choices open to us. I don;t agree with his historiography. Feudalism was an alternative to slave based societies within the same economic milieu.

    Thus all of our values will be, if not determined by, affected by our economic context. The idea that one can be ‘whatever one wants to be’ might be a romantic dream but its one that wouldn’t even be possible to consider for anyone who lved in, say, the 12th century.

    That said often these days it seems like everything is being run by accountants.

6 Trackbacks

  1. By skepticlawyer » Parenthood on March 6, 2009 at 6:10 am

    […] child, or stand idly by while another person harmed their child. This was brought to my mind by Skepticlawyer’s post on the cases of Shannon Matthews and Baby […]

  2. […] story, of course, is feeding into the Karen Matthews saga — she also had a filthy house, coupled with filthy children. It is also broaching wider […]

  3. By Skepticlawyer » Unhappy Medium on August 8, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    […] [ADMIN DEM: Obviously he's never sat through "Puppetry of the Penis". In case anyone happens to be visiting Edinburgh during his run, I can recommend several excellent local grocers for all your ballistic vegetable needs. Also for non-UK readers, we covered the fake Shannon Matthews disappearance here.] […]

  4. By Skepticlawyer » Snowtown on November 27, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    […] parts of Adelaide’s northern suburbs: Salisbury North, Smithfield Plains. I have written (in relation to the Karen and Shannon Matthews case) of the loss of moral moorings in sundry British council estates: The case is important, not […]

  5. […] You’ve all heard them, admit it. Chastity and morally upright behaviour will make us all better people; we can do without sex; celibacy is a gift from God; true love is love of God, sexual attraction is a diversion. Then there are the arguments against abortion, which are even worse: abortion creates a ‘culture of death’; raise every child regardless of whether you can afford it or not, weigh an infant’s life equally with that of the mother, worry about the unborn but do nothing (or very little) to assist those children (and their mothers) when they are born, or, in the alternative, do worry about this and find oneself subsidizing an utterly unworkable welfare state that routinely produces disasters like this. […]

  6. By Skepticlawyer » ‘I had a cunning plan’ on April 4, 2013 at 12:30 am

    […] have written about cunning plans gone terribly, terribly awry before. That post concerned Karen Matthews. I have also written about the welfare state gone terribly, terribly wrong, too: this time, the […]

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