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Damning proof that the government has no evidence benefits sanctions work

The National Audit Office says the government has failed to measure whether sanctioning benefit claimants represents value for money.

Does anyone remember evidence-based policymaking? For the DWP, it appears from today’s National Audit Office (NAO) report on sanctions, it is at best a dim and distant memory.

When the Department made substantial changes to sanction rules in 2012 – marking a step-change in their scope and severity – it could not quantify the financial impact of the changes, and it said it could not predict whether the changes would create savings. Since then, it has made no attempt to track the actual costs and benefits of the changes.

As one reads through the NAO’s report, it becomes increasingly clear how their task – to assess the value for money of sanctions policy – is thwarted at every turn by lack of evidence. The words "the Department does not know", and mentions of data that the Department does not analyse or collect, recur throughout. The government is evidently operating blind, on an issue that could scarcely be more important: the decision actively to remove from already-poor individuals and households the basic means of their subsistence.

Disturbingly, there are several indications that this ignorance is wilful. The DWP has administrative data on individual benefit histories, sanctions and employment, and data on local sanction rates and performance, but it chooses not to use this body of evidence to evaluate the impacts of sanctions. The government, via the Economic and Social Research Council, has funded a £2m research project from 2013 to 2018 to understand the role and impact of conditionality in social security. In 2015, the DWP advised its Work Programme providers not to take part in focus groups for the project. And, in March 2015, the Work and Pensions Committee called on the DWP to commission "a broad independent review of benefit conditionality and sanctions, to investigate whether sanctions are being applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately". After taking seven months to respond, the Department refused.

What we do know beyond doubt is that sanctions cause immense hardship to those who are subjected to them. This is in a sense a question of simple logic – take away a person’s primary, meagre source of sustenance, and they will suffer. Indeed, that is the Department’s stated intention: its own guidance to decision makers acknowledges that ‘it would be usual for a normal healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health’ if left without income for two weeks (JSA sanctions start at twice this duration). Decision makers assessing potential hardship payments should be looking only at those who would "suffer a greater decline in health than a normal healthy adult" [original emphasis]. But it is also reflected in a range of direct evidence, not least of which is the link between sanctions and food bank use: research by Child Poverty Action Group and others found that between 19 and 29 per cent of visits to the food banks we studied were caused by sanctions.

What evidence there is, the NAO finds, does not suggest an overwhelming case in favour of sanctions. The crutch upon which the DWP, when pushed on its policies over the last few years, has leant so heavily – international evidence on the impact of sanctions – is found by the NAO to be "mixed". This research found that claimants who are subject to sanctions are equally likely to move into employment and to move out of the system altogether – to an unknown destination – while both earnings and hours worked fell compared to those not subject to sanctions. The one UK study that was analysed by the DWP showed no evidence of sanctions increasing claimants’ probability of leaving benefits for work. The NAO’s preliminary analysis of the DWP’s own Work Programme data was consistent with the mixed findings of international studies.

Meanwhile, for Work Programme providers, on average, higher use of sanctions is associated with lower performance in terms of employment outcomes. Though this does not prove causality – it could be, for example, that weak Work Programme providers may use sanctions more because they are ineffective with their other approaches – it may suggest that differences in deterrence effects of sanctions are weaker than other factors explaining performance. Again, no evidence in favour of sanctions here.

The report finds substantial variation in the imposition of sanctions, both across time and between different geographical areas. So what is driving the operation of sanctions policy? The short version is that – again – the DWP doesn’t know, for sanctions administered by Jobcentres at least. Here, it could be that variation is due to differences in the types of claimants in each area, but the DWP has not assessed the causes of the variation, so it has no idea whether the variation is within acceptable limits. For Work Programme sanctions, because claimants are randomly assigned to a provider in their area, differences in referral rates are likely to reflect differences between providers rather than claimants’ behaviour. Taking geographical variation in the rate of sanctions alongside big changes over time – sanctions rose rapidly from 2012 to 2013, and then fell away so that they are now back roughly where they started – the NAO conclude that the imposition of sanctions seem to be driven by management culture at any given time and in any given place, rather than by claimants’ behaviour. In other words, sanctions are, to a greater or lesser extent, arbitrary.

Overall, the picture painted by today’s report is disturbing. Not only do the DWP not know how effective – let alone cost-effective – sanctions are at achieving their aims, they give every indication of not wanting to know. The NAO’s conclusion is damning: "Until the Department can show greater consistency in its use of sanctions and demonstrate that their effectiveness is proportionate to their costs, we cannot conclude that the Department is achieving value for money."

For a policy that is causing unprecedented hardship to hundreds of thousands of people each year, that’s not really good enough.

Alison Garnham is the chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

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White supremacists are embracing genetic testing – but they aren't always that keen on the results

Users of far-right site Stormfront are resorting to pseudo science and conspiracy theories when DNA tests show they aren't as “pure” as they hoped.

The field of genomics and genetics have undergone almost exponential growth in recent years. Ventures like the Human Genome Project have enabled t humanity to get a closer look at our building blocks. This has led to an explosion in genetic ancestry testingand as of 6 April 2017 23AndMe, one of the most popular commercial DNA testing websites, has genotyped roughly 2 million customers.

It is perhaps unsurprising that one of the markets for genetic testing can be found among white suprmacists desperate to prove their racial purity. But it turns out that many they may not be getting the results they want. 

Stormfront, the most prominent white nationalist website, has its own definition of those who are allowed to count themselves as white - “non-Jewish people of 100 per cent European ancestry.” But many supremacists who take genetic tests are finding out that rather than bearing "not a drop" of non-white blood, they are - like most of us a conglomerate of various kinds of DNA from all over the world including percentages from places such as sub Saharan Africa and Asia. Few are taking it well.

Dr. Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, of UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics and the research institute Data and Society respectively, presented a research study (currently under peer review for publication) at the American Sociological Association a week ago, analysing discussion of GAT on Stormfront forums. Panofsky, Donovan and a team of researchers narrowed down the relevant threads to about 700, with 153 users who had chosen to publish their results online. While Panofsky emphasised that it is not possible to draw many quantitative inferences, the findings of their study offer a glimpse into the white nationalist movement's response to science that doesn't their self perception. 

“The bulk of the discussion was repair talk”, says Panofsky. “Though sometimes folks who posted a problematic result were told to leave Stormfront or “drink cyanide” or whatever else, 'don’t breed', most of the talk was discussion about how to interpret the results to make the bad news go away”.

Overwhelmingly, there were two main categories of reinterpretation. Many responses dismissed GAT as flimsy science – with statements such as a “person with true white nationalist consciousness can 'see race', even if their tests indicate 'impurity'".

Other commentators employed pseudo-scientific arguments. “They often resemble the critiques that professional geneticists, biological anthropologists and social scientists, make of GAT, but through a white nationalist lens", says Panofsky. 

For instance, some commentators would look at percentages of non-European DNA and put it down to the rape of white women by non-white men in the past, or a result of conquests by Vikings of savage lands (what the rest of us might call colonialism). Panofsky likens this to the responses from “many science opponents like climate deniers or anti-vaxxers, who are actually very informed about the science, even if they interpret and critique it in idiosyncratic and motivated ways".

Some white nationalists even looked at the GAT results and suggested that discussion of 100 per cent racial purity and the "one drop" rule might even be outdated – that it might be better to look for specific genetic markets that are “reliably European”, even though geneticists might call them by a different name.

Of course, in another not totally surprising development, many of the Stormfront commentators also insisted that GAT is part of a Jewish conspiracy, “to confuse whites by sprinkling false diversity into test results".

Many of the experts in the field have admitted to queasiness about the test themselves; both how they come to their results and what they imply. There are several technical issues with GAT, such as its use of contemporary populations to make inferences about those who previously lived in different places around the world, and concerns that the diversity of reference samples used to make inferences is not fully representative of the real world. 

There are other specific complications when it comes to the supramacist enthusiasm for GAT. Some already make a tortous argument that white people are the “true people of color" by dint of greater variation in hair and eye color. By breaking up DNA into percentages (e.g. 30 per cent Danish, 20 per cent German), Panofsky says GAT can provide a further opportunity to “appropriate and colonise the discourse of diversity and multiculturalism for their own purposes". There's is also, says Panofsky, the simple issue that “we can’t rely on genetic information to turn white nationalists away from their views."

“While I think it would be nice if the lesson people would take from GAT is that white nationalism is incoherent and wrong. I think white nationalists themselves often take the exact opposite conclusion."