Webb essay runner up: Time to end poverty

Webb would deplore the inequality in Britain today.

If the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that there are few constants in modern life. For every invention, discovery, and idea of the nineteenth century, the following century brought us thousands more. Rapid change and continuous innovation continues to shape the current century. Amidst these developments, however there remains one major constant - poverty. Descriptions of slums, mills and workhouses conjure up an image of another world, one we have left behind as we continue our march of progress to a better way of life, but antiquated terms such as the "destitute" and the "impoverished" have a frightening relevance in the UK today. Whilst the workhouses and slums might now have been confined to the history books, there is a real, living poverty in the UK which confronts us. Poverty represents a blot on the social and political landscape of "modern" times.

It is easy to imagine that if Beatrice Webb were alive today she would find it disappointing and yet somehow unsurprising that poverty still exists in Britain. Disappointing because although over a century has passed since individuals began to campaign for the eradication of poverty, poverty still exists. Unsurprising because the causes of poverty are woven deeply into the fabric of our social and economic structures. As the Webbs and their contemporaries highlighted, the idea that poverty is caused by weakness of character or individual moral failing is inaccurate. In The Prevention of Destitution the Webbs attacked popular conceptions of the poor which painted those in poverty as corrupt and flawed individuals. The false image of the poor criticised by the Webbs bears a striking resemblance to current caricatures of the "poor man" as a work-shy, undeserving idler belonging to some form of under-class. While there may always be cases which point to personal character being linked to poverty, it is largely a myth to claim that the poor bring poverty upon themselves. Poverty is the result of problems within the political and economic system and therefore we must turn to these systems to find the solutions.

The solutions will not be easy to find. Even the nature of the problem is difficult to define. Over the last hundred years or so there have been several attempts to survey the extent of poverty both at a regional and a national level. From Charles Booth's survey of working life in London, to the work of the Blair administration's Social Exclusion Unit; from Seebohm Rowntree's York studies to the Field Review, there have been numerous attempts to examine poverty and its causes. When approaching poverty in the twenty-first century we must first begin with some difficult questions. Is there one "type" of poverty or can we discuss many "poverties"? Does poverty start and end with economic circumstances? How should we measure "poverty of opportunity" or "cultural poverty"?

The poverty indicators currently used go some way to provide a clear picture of the extent of its existence in the UK. The English Indices of Deprivation used by the Department for Communities and Local Government are organised into seven domains: income, employment, health and disability, education and training, barriers to housing and services, living environment, and crime.

This approach to poverty, however, does not account for a variation in the "type" of poverty experienced by individuals or families. Nor does it encourage appreciation of the fact that poverty is not necessarily just about material deprivation. The lack of cultural stimulation or the lack of a sense of involvement also represents a form of poverty, even if the consequences of this deprivation are less serious (and less immediate) than economic deprivation. Therefore, if Beatrice Webb were to conduct an enquiry into UK poverty, she might examine a wider range of indicators.

It might be useful to organise these indicators into the following groupings: primary indicators relating to basic needs, indicators of social and economic barriers, and indicators linked to social inclusion. Obviously when analysing data relating to poverty it is difficult to draw any accurate conclusions relating to the causes of poverty. For example, if a person is living on a low income and they lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, is it their existing poverty which has led to their educational underachievement of is it their lack of academic skills which has contributed to their poverty? To attempt to understand patterns of poverty it might be necessary to measure the poverty indicators over two generations. This would also reveal any fluctuations in factors such as income.

Firstly, we could look at primary indicators which can be considered as being an individual's basic needs. What does a family or individual need to live sufficiently? These would include income, housing and health services. In terms of income, a survey would consider disposable income and would need to establish the nature of this income (wage, pension, benefit etc.), the security of this income (regularity of payments, fluctuations, conditions on receipt of income) and how income is spent (proportion on food, rent, bills and personal items). Questions related to housing would include housing needs (homelessness, fixed location, overcrowding), terms of residency (home ownership, mortgage, private sector rent, social housing), condition of housing (property type, central heating, sanitation facilities) and surrounding environment (facilities, neighbouring properties). Health would look at access to healthcare (NHS doctors, dentists), birth and mortality rates (low birth weight babies, premature infant/adult death), health conditions and mental illness. An additional indicator relating to nutrition might also be considered. Rowntree's studies of poverty in York placed a great emphasis on adult diet and this would be a useful indicator in measuring poverty in the UK today. Therefore, data relating to adult and infant calorie intake, malnutrition and balance within diets would also be considered.

Secondly, we might look at factors which act as social and economic barriers. This means issues which might prolong poverty and limit opportunities. What might prevent individuals and families from being lifted out of poverty? Education, employment experience and access to services would fall into this category. Educational yardsticks could be academic qualifications (school education, post compulsory education, literacy, numeracy and computing skills) and professional qualifications (vocational qualifications). Employment would include a measure of whether an individual has access to work experience and to pathways into professions (careers guidance, work placements/internships, someone to provide job references). Attention would also be directed towards the access to services which allow individuals to take advantage of opportunities (car ownership, childcare provision, holding a bank account). Several key questions need to be asked. Does low educational achievement lead to unemployment, and consequently to poverty? Or, does poverty lead to low educational achievement? If a young person's family members do not work in a profession such as teaching or medicine is it more or less likely that the young person themselves will be excluded from these professions? Does a young person whose parents/guardians own and drive a car stand a better chance of being a car owner themselves in the future?

Finally, a survey might consider factors relating to inclusivity. This includes factors which might exclude individuals from taking a full part in society. Having a good quality of life goes beyond living sufficiently: it involves feeling part, and being able to be part of wider society. Often those living in poverty experience barriers which prevent them from participating in this sense. Indicators of this type of poverty might include the lack of computer/internet access, lack of technology (white electronic goods, telephones, a television), a lack of disposable income to spend on personal goods and leisure activities, or being unable to afford to keep a pet. Whilst these factors might be considered luxuries, it is surely the case that any form of deprivation should be described as a barrier which prevents full participation in social life. This is, therefore, a form of cultural poverty. Particularly in the modern age, the lack of a television or computer not only limits opportunities but also puts an individual at a disadvantage by denying them access to services, learning and entertainment.

These factors are obviously interrelated. But it is clear that the primary needs of an individual (income, housing and health) ought to be given more weight in any measure of poverty. The lack of one of these factors can often cause barriers (educational and employment) and lead to social exclusion. Take the example of a child living in an overcrowded house. A lack of space may impact upon sleep or hygiene, which in turn might have an impact upon schoolwork or homework. This might lead to the child being unable to fulfil their educational potential which might lead to a lack of future employment. Of course this is not always the case, but it easy to see how the failure to meet the basic needs of an individual can set in motion a chain of problems which might limit opportunities in other areas.

A factor which must be considered when exploring these indicators is choice. Surely part of living a "good life" means having the ability to choose? An essential part of being human involves having the right to make decisions for one's self. Having the ability to make choices and be master of your own life is psychologically vital as it empowers the individual. Therefore, being denied this right can often make an individual feel vulnerable, worthless and socially disenfranchised. Often those in poverty are denied choice. Whereas one person might choose between two career paths, another does not have the luxury of choosing but merely has to settle for the job which puts bread on the table. Whereas one family might agonise over which area to live in, another settles merely for bricks and mortar, hardly deserving of being called a home. Whereas the dilemna for one person might be which of the latest songs to download, for another person the choice is whether to spend that money on the download at all, or on a pint of milk. Patently the latter in each case is no choice at all.

Now here is the most difficult task. How to place the spotlight on poverty? How to put poverty at the top of the political agenda? The problem lies with the fact that public and political opinion is guided largely by a group of individuals who have hardly experienced disadvantage let alone true hardship. It is always galling to hear "the haves" telling "the have-nots" how to live their lives and listen to them arguing that underprivileged are architects of their own misery. Worse still is the way in which the "haves" encourage the condemnation of those in poverty by painting them as a monstrous scourge, almost an entirely different species, quite separate from the "hard-working" majority. Nobody chooses poverty. Nobody deserves to live in poverty. What is more, nobody dreams of actually being in employment but living poverty.

In order to tackle the issue of poverty, it is first necessary to counter the trend towards a resurrection of the nineteenth-century politics of individualism. Support provided to those in poverty ought not to be conditional in the sense that society will only help those who are willing to help themselves. The individual alone can do little to improve their situation without there being some significant change to social and economic structures.

The poverty index described could be used in two ways: it would draw attention to the flaws in current perceptions of poverty and it would highlight the specific areas in which the current support mechanisms are failing.

A survey into the nature, level and security of incomes would undoubtedly reveal that many of those living in poverty are not "scroungers" and in fact they make every effort to work to earn a living. Poverty is not confined to the jobless - many working families live in poverty and struggle to maintain homes and feed children. Clearly individual drive or motivation to work is not the problem. The failure lies in the wage system. How can it be fair that an individual who works still does not have enough to live on? The solution is obvious: the minimum wage should be substituted for a decent living wage.

An examination of housing provision would also expel the ridiculous assumption that those on lower incomes are given housing "freebies". Such ideas are merely borne out of ignorance. Many families have housing needs that are unmet. Many individuals have no fixed residence. Often individuals live without basic facilities such as showers and heating. Only by understanding the nature of current housing provision can the public and politicians begin to accommodate the need for affordable and good quality housing. A survey of housing would allow central and local government to work with housing associations, charities and the construction industry to focus their attention on the most pressing needs of individuals.

Assessment of education and employment would also help counter the many generalisations made about the motivations and aspirations of those living in poverty. It would demonstrate that the reasons many are on low incomes have little to do with a lack of education or a lack of employment-based skills. Also, it might reveal that where educational achievement is lower than expected, this is caused by a lack of financial resources or the lack of an adequate learning environment at home. Surely the problem is not a lack of personal motivation? It is the responsibility of the education system and employers to nurture an individual. Giving a person an opportunity of learning a new skill or developing existing ones can often make all the difference. Poverty is often the result of a failure to recognise and tend to the needs and talents of an individual.

If Beatrice Webb were alive today she would find that although the nature of poverty may have changed over the last century, it is perhaps just as prevalent. It is a shameful fact that whilst one sector of our society has experienced greater prosperity and opportunity than ever before, another group continues to experience a hardship which parallels a Victorian era we claim to have left behind. In years to come the question to ask should not be "How can we measure, and promote the issue of poverty?", but rather "What have we done to help bring an end to poverty?"

 

 

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge