Why benefit sanctions could end up costing the taxpayer more

Sanctions push people into insecure, badly-paid jobs that leave them back on welfare soon afterwards.

The welfare system is now tougher than ever. Figures out today show there were half a million sanctions against Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants between 22 October 2012 and June 2013.

Sanctions and conditions in the benefits system that are clearly communicated and fairly applied make an important contribution to a well-functioning welfare-to-work system. But they must go hand in hand with measures to support people into good, sustainable jobs. Together these actions can promote behaviour that is in the interests of claimants and taxpayers.

But JRF’s systematic review of the international evidence on the impact of sanctions shows that in practice they often create perverse effects. These can cause severe hardship and create higher costs in the long-term. Evidence from the US shows that sanctions can be an effective tool for getting people off benefits, but this is partly because people drop out of the system altogether. This may reduce the welfare bill in the short-term but can cause destitution and cost the public dear in other ways.

Evidence from Europe shows the use of sanctions can increase people moving into work, but it tends to be lower-paid, insecure work, which sees people quickly back on benefits again. This is because the threat or use of sanctions makes people take poorer jobs than if they had been allowed to wait for better opportunities. JRF is conducting a review of the impact of welfare sanctions, which will cast more light on this in the future.

New targets for jobcentres encourage them to focus on keeping people in work and helping them progress to better-paid jobs and move off in-work benefits; this is exactly what all the evidence says they should be doing. But it seems sanctions are not being used to support this. Rather, they undermine it by pushing more people into insecure, badly-paid, dead-end jobs. 

The welfare system as a whole needs to be refocused to concentrate on getting people into work that they can sustain and that will allow them to increase their hours and pay to a point where they no longer need the state to top up their earnings. At the moment, bits of it have been reformed to achieve this, while other bits still have the old approach of 'get a job, any job!' Let’s get the whole system pulling in the same direction.

Helen Barnard is Poverty Research Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

People enter the Jobcentre Plus office on January 18, 2012 in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images.

Helen Barnard is a Policy and Research Manager for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.