Five reasons why "smart cards" for benefits claimants are a bad idea

Iain Duncan Smith's latest proposal betrays a lack of understanding of the real problems faced by "troubled families".

"Troubled families" could receive their welfare payments on smart cards, rather than in cash. In a move close to satire, Iain Duncan Smith has asked his Work and Pensions officials to see if certain groups should be legally barred from spending their benefits on alcohol and cigarettes.
By being given a "card", the 120,000 families dubbed "troubled" earlier this year would only be able to use welfare to buy things like food, clothing, and housing.

As the Telegraph points out, this would require a change in the law. The government cannot currently stipulate how people spend their benefits. There's probably a reason for that. In fact, I've come up with five.

1. Paternalistic

Explaining his thinking, Duncan Smith has said:

I am looking at the moment at ways in which we could ensure that money we give them to support their lives is not used to support a certain lifestyle. I am certainly looking at it – I am going through that in some detail… With the use of cards, we are looking at that to see if we can do something.

The language is pretty telling. Welfare isn’t an entitlement but something the government "gives"; pocket money bestowed to the children by a patient (and increasingly strict) father. A troubled family is one who spends what they’re given on a "certain lifestyle"; one deemed inappropriate.

What’s interference for the rich is assistance for the poor.

Putting to one side the morality of dictating what people spend their benefits on, it’s an idea that only encourages the dehumanising effect of the "troubled family" categorisation.  Already deemed the problem element at the bottom rung of society, they’re now not even capable of making their own decisions. Conservative insistence on "responsibility" is abandoned for the group who need chaperoning to spend money. And why shouldn’t they? These people use their children’s food money to buy vodka.

2. "Troubled" equals poor or disabled

In fact, the government has always seemed unsure who these people are. According to its own guidelines, a "troubled family" is one that meets five out of seven criteria: having a low income; no one in the family who is working; poor housing; parents who have no qualifications; where the mother has a mental health problem; one parent has a long-standing illness or disability; and where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.

This seems rather different to "people who are using benefits to fund a habit and [their] children are going hungry", Duncan Smith is said to be targeting. It’s because the definition of "troubled family" conflates poverty, ill health, unemployment and criminality. Duncan Smith talks about drug addicts and alcoholics but one look at the government’s definition means he’s referring largely to the poor and disabled. His proposal to deal with people who don’t buy their children food because they’re drug addicted would in fact target people who don’t buy food because they can’t afford it.

3. No understanding of the problem

Even if "troubled families" were households where a parent was an addict, changing the way their benefits are paid is unlikely to change that. The belief that it would reflects not only a poor understanding of addiction but the wider thinking behind the entire "troubled family" initiative: the problem is one of individual failure and the government is not there to provide help.  

Despite what conservative rhetoric about the "deserving" and "underserving" poor rhetoric suggests, there’s rarely a clean divide between the problems that affect people’s lives. Someone who is sick, funnily enough, can also be an addict.

4. No understanding of disability

Due to the practicality of monitoring what’s in people’s trolleys, it’s unlikely that a "welfare card" will be accepted everywhere. Many people with a disability or long-term health problem use online shopping (often, in fact, a stipulation of their care plan in order to cut costs of providing assistance). Others are only able to use their local shop because of transport problems. Putting controls on what disabled people can buy can make it difficult for them to buy anything.

5. Oh, and no understanding of the facts

The government aren’t just unsure who "troubled families" are. Fact checks show they’re not sure how much they’re costing the state or how many there are

This may partly be because the original policy, designed to deal with 120,000 families, was based on interviews conducted with 16 families. It may also be because the much used 120,000 number is a figure drawn from one piece of research conducted eight years ago. It's not just the mortality of the policy that's flawed, then, but the data it’s born from.  

It seems telling someone how to spend their benefits meets at least five criteria of "troubled." By Duncan Smith’s own thinking, that means we’ve got a problem.

Frances Ryan is a freelance writer and political researcher at the University of Nottingham.

She tweets as @frances__ryan.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last month's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?