Claims of scientific proof that the benefits system is creating a generation of ‘work resistant personalities’ are in tatters after Adam Perkins’ recent book The Welfare Trait was revealed to contain a string of sloppy errors.
The book was first published late last year and initially recieved little attention. This is because it was shit. But that didn’t stop the right wing press, along with think-tank The Adam Smith Institute, claiming that the author had been censored by left wing academics for finally telling the truth about the welfare state. Perkins claimed to have scientific evidence for almost every lazy stereotype ever published about benefit claimants – that social security encourages people to have more children, that unemployed people are lazy and criminal, that benefits encourage people to neglect their children, and even that the welfare state turns people into murderers. His conclusion is that the poor should be encouraged not to be breed, warning that otherwise the human capital of the nation will be genetically eroded.
When a talk by Perkins was cancelled by cowards at the London School of Economics after a couple of facebook posts discussing whether to hold a protest against the book’s publication, the right wing press went into meltdown. Here was yet another example, they claimed, of bullying left wingers and students silencing views they did not wish to hear. Right wing commentators like Toby Young stepped up to defend Perkins work, claiming that his conclusions were ‘bleedin’ obvious’. He clearly had not read the book, or if he had has little understanding of how scientific evidence works – a troubling thought given that he runs a school.
Perkins central claim, which is that social security benefits encourage people to breed, was the first evidence to be demolished when economist Jonathan Portes questioned the data he had used. Figures showing that ‘workless’ families have more children on average than families with two parents in work did not take into account those with no children leaving a gaping hole in the evidence.
Perkins wriggled and claimed this was deliberate, implying he wanted to show that parents claiming benefits have more children on average, not that they are more likely to have children. But then someone else pointed out that those he accuses of being workless include stay at home parents – of which there are over two million according to the Office for National Statistics. People unable to work due to sickness or disability are also included in the figures, as are lone parents, including those with very young babies. Also those he calls workless, and therefore possibly possessing a work-resistant personality, could be carers, students or volunteers. That Perkins seems to have misunderstood his own data means that the conclusion of his research – that benefits should be cut until the birth rate of claimants is equal or lower to that of non-claimants – is nothing but bollocks. He hasn’t even demonstrated that those on benefits have more kids.
Perkins is in favour of cutting the incomes of the poorest families because he claims research shows that parents on benefits fritter their money away on ‘luxury chocolates and electronic gadgets’. The children of benefit claimants he insists ‘tend to be neglected regardless of household income’. His proof for this nasty claim comes from research carried out into just 33 poor families in Sheffield in the 1960s. Evidence showing that the best way to help those in poverty is unsuprisingly to give them more money, is conveniently ignored throughout the book.
Perkins is adamant that people on benefits neglect their children, citing evidence that families on welfare in the US were shown to speak less to their children and to have a lower vocabulary. This leads him to say repeatedly that claimants ‘barely talk to their children’ despite spending all day with them. His evidence for this is a study carried out into just five families in Kansas in 1995. This research has since been discredited as biased and loaded with cultural assumptions – the five families were all black and were being compared to mostly white rich professionals. All it shows is that poor black people speak differently to posh white people.
Towards the end of the book Perkins even decides that the introduction of the welfare state was responsible for an increase in the murder rate that began in the 1960s. Whilst he admits he cannot prove causation for this – that social security actually turned people into killers – he points out that an obscure and controversial book once came to a similiar conclusion and that if theories by scholars point in the same direction to his own then it is probably true. His problem here is that the murder rate, along with violent crime, has been falling since the 1990s. He therefore can’t even demonstrate correlation – as the number of people on benefits has gone up the murder rate has fallen. Perkins shrugs this off though saying that’s because the police take murder more seriously these days and doctors are better at saving people’s lives. He then points out another mechanism that might turn claimants into murderers – they get to have a lie-in in the morning which gives them time to spend the night ‘stalking for victims’.
Later claims in the book, that the welfare state makes people racist and that stopping child benefits might encourage women to find a better man to look after them, are made without any attempt at providing evidence.
It would take another book to point out all the errors, bias and misuse of evidence in The Welfare Trait which reads more like a fervent conspiracy theory than a piece of academic research. It is genuinely astonishing, to the point of suspicion, that it received peer review and was published at all. What is not so surprising is the jubilant reaction of right wing pundits who declared their nasty little prejudices finally proved.
What has actually taken place is that an attempt to scientifically justify hatred for the poor has been exposed as a sick joke – and along with it the bleedin obvious bigotry of the likes of Toby Young, The Daily Mail and the Adam Smith Institute. If Perkins has demonstrated anything it is that you cannot prove that benefit claimants are lazy, feckless, neglectful of their children and promiscuous without making shit up. There is reams of evidence that contradicts every claim made in The Welfare Trait, although Perkins ignores it all.
This shabby attempt at pseudo-science reveals the constant benefit bashing rhetoric for what it is – lies. Already the right are on the retreat. Toby Young appeared to sulkily concede that the evidence was flawed on twitter recently although said he’d like to hear Perkins’ side of the story. The Adam Smith Institute have now put a disclaimer on their gushing review of the book*, saying had they been aware of the ‘basic errors’ in the book they might have taken a ‘somewhat diferent tone’. Perkins, who initially called the criticism “correct politicalness buffoonery” whatever the fuck that means, has now gone quiet after becoming a laughing stock on social media. What an embarrassment. Let’s all point and laugh.
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