Monday 11 January 2016

The Welfare Trait


I am impressed that people continue writing books, an enterprise which is heroic and very possibly futile: everything moves at such a fast pace now, with new results coming out every week, whilst a book must be nursed through many months of hard labour (five and a half years in the case below), during which key research findings may be contradicted, superceded and set aside, rendering the bound volume of arguments and conclusions obsolete. The counter-balancing benefit is that in a book a thesis can be developed at its own pace, generating deeper understanding and thus having more impact than the ephemeral and nugatory postings of a blog.

Adam Perkins. The Welfare Trait: How State benefits affect personality. Palgrave MacMillan 2016. 201pp. ISBN 978-1-137-55528-1.

Adam Perkins is a Lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality at Kings College, which probably means the old Institute of Psychiatry, world centre of psycho-research, where half an hour in the canteen with other researchers is better than most post-graduate courses.

Perkins has put together an interesting thesis: welfare states are shaping up dependency behaviours, generating an increasing number of employment-resistant persons, who contribute very little, soak up resources, and are likely to have more surving work-shy children.

My initial reaction was that although all persons respond to contingencies, I doubted that the relatively novel effects of welfarism (starting seriously in 1945, but pre-figured in 1911, and evident to some extent from 1870) was too recent to have detectable genetic impact.

I decided to take a closer look. The central thesis of the book is that the benefits of a generous welfare state erode work ethics, and that the longer people live under welfarism, the more they depend on those benefits, and the more likely they are to cheat to obtain them. Dependent households have more children: for every 3% increase in UK benefits the number of children born to claimants rises by 1%, mostly due to discontinuing contraception. Perkins lays great stock on the findings of Heckman, Pinto and Savelyev 2013 that childhood disadvantage promotes anti-social behaviour. He argues that welfare dependency increases the number of children likely to be brought up badly, eroding human capital from generation to generation.

Perkins, who spent quite a few years in humdrum jobs, including times in which he relied on welfare payments, drily observes that governing elites are spared the negative consequences of welfarism, and so are reluctant to deal with its shortcomings. He also notes that the current projected cap on benefits (recently postponed) is still at a level way above what the unskilled can earn in full time work, so it is to their credit that so many remain in the labour market, rather than taking the cash and staying at home.

Understandably, given his job title, Perkins concentrates on personality, not intelligence. This is a drawback, because both are relevant, and inclusion of both measures would test and probably strengthen his thesis. He describes intelligence as the horsepower of the engine of the car, and personality the steering system in charge of setting desired destinations. In a nutshell, he wants the welfare system to be amended to take account of personality (I would say also of intelligence, or simply behaviour generally).

It is a quibble, but Perkins believes that science is “just a refinement of everyday thinking”, and that scientific arguments are “based primarily on evidence obtained by scientific studies that have been written up and published in scientific journals or books”. I think that science is a rare, refined and detached way of thinking, restricted to cognitive elites, based on evidence regardless of publication. Eratosthenes could have muttered his calculations on the circumference of the earth to some friends over dinner, and still have been head and shoulders above most published researchers.

Equally, I disagree with his quotation of Schofield 2013 “Science is not about finding the truth at all” (but the simplest explantion with predictive power). Scientists are truth-seekers.

Perkins rightly draws attention to the work of WL Tonge and colleagues on 66 poor  families in Sheffield, 33 of them problem families. This should have been displayed in a summary table. Problem families were more impulsive, irresponsible, apathetic and aggressive than controls. In modern jargon, less conscientious and agreeable. None of these differences were due to income or local job opportunities.

Perkins also notes that the Dunedin study underlines the long term effect of low childhood self-control.

In Chapter 4 Perkins looks at the influence of benefits on claimant reproduction. Low self-control is linearly related to large family size, an r rather than k strategy.

Perkins sees the Hart and Ridley (1995) study as persuasive that parents, by their lack of involvement, create disadvantage in their children. However, the results are mostly due to parental levels of education, a proxy for intelligence, which the children inherit.

Rindermann, H. & Baumeister, A. E. E. (2015). Parents’ SES vs. parental educational behavior and children’s development: A reanalysis of the Hart and Risley study. Learning and Individual Differences, 37, 133-138.

Perkins is also positive about the Perry Pre-School project, but could have alluded to the problems of compromised randomisation, which others have sought to correct for. None of this is fatal, just incomplete.

Perkins gathers together the data on selective breeding for behaviour, bringing in Broadhurst’s Maudsley Reactive rats bred for fearfulness and differing in 10 generations of strict selection; Garland’s ten mouse generations of selection for voluntary wheel running (amusingly described as the Work Ethic); and Belyaev’s selection of foxes for tameness, showing divergence in “a few generations”. The foxes were already moderately tame, so the process had a head start, and the selection was very strong, so the divergence estimates are probably too high. Indeed, the general conclusion that about 100 years of welfare legislation could significantly change human personality by genetics alone seems premature. These four generations could be the start of a trend,  which is alarming enough, but many of the work-shy might have married similar persons anyway, and what welfare is doing is ensuring that their children survive, even when they cannot provide for them adequately.

Inevitably, even a book published this year will have left out important new findings, which are the bread and butter of any blog. For example, Perkins quotes Turkheimer 2003 as showing that SES reduces the heritability of intelligence. I have explained why later studies, in my view, gave a more balanced picture.

And here is a more recent meta-analysis

Perkins has raised enough matters to reveal deleterious consequences from welfarism, and to put a warning flag on non-contributory benefits, anathema to Beveridge, who saw his well-balanced ideas (contribute in order to draw on benefits only if you really need them) mutate from the safety net he had intended into a bed of benefits in which some slept all day. There are many good things in this book, many which I have marked in pencil but not mentioned since my comments are already quite long, and if I have been critical of several particulars, then that is part of my tradition: carp at even the hypotheses you believe to be basically correct.

This book deserves to be read. The price needs to come down so it can reach a wider audience, but even at the current price it is worth buying and sending to your elected representative, with the key findings underlined.


  1. Isn't it curious that welfarism seems to work fairly well in scandinavia and germanic countries(perhaps for genetic reasons) and that the catastrophe there seems to what people call "pathological altruism" producing the immigration apocalypse.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Its one of these taboo topics, off limits fore discussion nowadays. Europeans are generally hard working, or were before welfare, they would rarely lean on others for their livelihood. Not all races and cultures are the same. In some cultures its considered smart, very smart, to lean on others for your living. hence you bring those people in to a modern European country and they'll live their whole lives on someone else's dime.

    3. I have read in several places that the welfare states in Scandinavia are starting to erode the work ethic in the population. There could easily be cultural reasons for the lag between them and the UK.

  2. OT, but a tweet you responded to from 23andme goes:

    "Humans are 99.9% genetically identical. Only .01% of our genetic makeup differs."

    Even its "math" is wrong, of course: it should be .1%.

    1. human dna has 3.2 billion base pairs, so 0.1 percent is 3.2 million. Some might say that's enough room for significant differences?

    2. Is interesting that no one disputes the fast African runner, its obviously genetics. But when the same genetics points to IQ differences, suddenly the science becomes racist.

  3. "scientists" are self declared "truth seekers" but don't appear enough to be a truly "truth seeker". ;)

  4. "Perkins has put together an interesting thesis": true, but the man in the pub adopted this thesis decades ago.

    I'm so old that I can remember the thesis being put to Labour politicians in radio interviews, and their denying that any such people existed. Not that they were rare, mind, but that they were non-existent. Even in my happy undergraduate bubble I knew that was rubbish, and that they must know that it was rubbish.

    In a way, to the layman it probably doesn't matter too much to untangle the effects of upbringing and genetics: that scummy families tend to produce scummy children is probably what he thinks, and that the rules of our Welfare State encourage the weak, and the unlucky, to adopt scumminess.

    It's a remarkable feature of our society that when the man in the pub airs his views based on his own experience and observations, he'll be told that he's some sort of Nazi by people who extol democracy in the abstract.

    1. If some more men (women) "in the pub", accused of being "some sort of Nazi" can refer to the existence of ongoing academic research and science though, even in just a fairly general way, then that would seem to give value to this sort of publication. These are the people that, in convincing each other what is right in their social intereactions, will at intervals choose the government of the day.

    2. Same in the US, dearieme, everyday people know full well that welfare is corrosive...

  5. It will be interesting to see how this affects millenials, many of whom will go on benefits simply because so many are unemployed or underemployed.

    1. within weeks their diets will change, their intellect will drop, they wil cease grooming. Gin and other strong drugs will be come all consuminsg of their thoughts and lotto tickets will be a major spending. Any bloke knows this.

  6. Two shortcomings jump off the page at me.

    First, the term "welfare" is not clearly defined. Does any part of a large, well-crafted social safety net have more merit than any other? Do free lunches for poor kids at school have the same corrupting impact on their families as, say a rent subsidy or actual cash disbursement? Is the impacts proportional or does it matter? And finally, is this an argument to suspend all forms of "welfare" (whatever that might mean)?

    Some mention is made that various examples of "welfare" appear to result in a variety of outcomes, but the central thrust of the discussion is that the best welfare -- the ideal target -- is zero welfare altogether. (Rather like "the only good Indian [or named group of your choice] is a dead Indian.")

    Second, I find no mention of the impact of technology on the elimination of human work in general and low-skilled jobs in particular. We need not go back further than living memory to find examples of low-skill human activity rendered obsolete by what we carelessly call "progress." My career in the food business saw many jobs vanish as food technology advanced (butchering, baking, food prep, salad-making, cooking -- all made locally obsolete by institutional mass production and distribution). And the new products were not only less costly (no more hourly jobs) but more consistent, even safer from contamination, not to mention more easily measured for purposes of nutrition and menu planning.

    The question I would pose is: Without what this ivory-tower discussion is calling "welfare" what is to become of the middle-aged worker whose life has been spent as an hourly employee (typically without retirement arrangements, disability or health insurance) when that hourly job vanishes? What is the alternative to some form of "welfare."

    (I also object to the condescending use of the term *welfare* altogether, but that's my own hangup. I've come to accept that shaming and blaming is part of the meritocracy fabric.)

    1. "What is the alternative to some form of "welfare."

      Starvation, death, end of that particular family line.

    2. John, since you like to make unreasonable critique, let me make a rational critique of your objections.

      Paragraph 1:
      Fallacy of Logic Chopping and Trivial Objections

      Paragraph 2: Reductio ad Hitlerum

      Paragraph 3: Non-sequitur

      Paragraph 4: Unreasonable use of scare quotes, more hair splitting.

      Paragraph 5: Fallacy of deepest offence.

    3. spoken like a true ostrich with his head where the son don't shine. hate on... its great for the gene pool that you hate on and raise those corrosive steroids, rage on, darwin thanks you. How dare anyone wonder what will become of himself, such crawling in self pity! we have sanitary facilities to cure them.or at least put us out of their miseries.

  7. To start on one point - a high benefit cap doesn't dissuade people from work because hardly any of them would qualify for it. A cap is a theoretical maximum, not a typical level of payment. That someone publishes a book on welfare yet doesn't understand this basic point is alarming.

    Unfortunately, it's typical - the author fails to address why when welfare was at its highest in comparison to wages, unemployment was at it lowest; only as the neoliberal model invaded western economies did it rise again to pre-war levels. Only with the demise of labour intensive industries from the late 70s onwards did people miraculously discover their idleness gene.

    I could quote a virtually unending stream of serious studies that have discovered no evidence for welfare dependency culture. Such is the stigma of unemployment that people would rather work, even for a pittance. Workfare for £70pw and Kafka-esque conditionality are hardly attractive. The much-talked about three generations of unemployment remain mysteriously resistant to existing beyond the imaginations of tap room experts impressed by right wing tabloids and anecdotes. See above.

    I'll keep it brief with one fact:

    Of the 1.5m people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance in January 2011, just 0.3 per cent had been claiming for five years or more - 4,220 people.

    When this was pointed out to ministers, they changed tack from "never worked" to "don't stay in employment". Well of course they don't - the neoliberal jobs market is characterised by agency work, temporary contracts, zero hr contracts, job schemes, and sham apprenticeships. The days of spending a lifetime in one job disappeared with the social democracy that fostered it.

    1. The market is the market; legislation will affect it only to the extent that it will correct for external influences.
      Take, for example, Godfrey Bloom's famous comment about employing women of child-bearing age. Many called him misogynistic, callous or even evil. No-one that I am aware of said that he was wrong - the negative effect of employment legislation on employers in this area is unarguable.
      Likewise the argument about temp work, zero-hours contracts etc. Make it hard to sack workers and employers will look for ways to vet them over a period of time, or to avoid taking on potential trouble by not actually being the employer.

      I drive a lorry for a living. I could easily spend the rest of my working life doing so - indeed, many do.

    2. The jobs of you truck drivers are already in Google's sights!

      My Tesla Model S P90D just got a software update that allows me to "Summon" it out of its parking space rather than me having to walk to it!

    3. No one likes the insecurity of modern employment, the agencies, the low wages, the lack of benefits, and the odd working hours. But there is one thing we all agree on, our cheap Asian made flat screen TVs, DVDs and cheap cars from Korea.

  8. Excellent review, thanks, but if any of our representatives in the US took the time to read and understand this book (doubtful), it wouldn't change the current non-dialogue one iota....Maybe things are different in Old Blighty!

  9. Basic data:

    What do fertility rates look like by race?

    And within each race, what's the fertility rate by education? By income? Or how about IQ (or some proxy like GCSE score)?

    And folks, let's keep in mind the breeder's equation. A tiny fertility advantage by the underclass would take many generations to manifest as something we'd notice.

  10. "A tiny fertility advantage by the underclass would take many generations to manifest as something"

    Is this the same as, "We will be dead and gone before any major detrimental consequences are manifest, so don't worry about it now"?

    1. Pretty much. And this assumes that things stay the course, which is not a given by any means.

  11. Welfare is fine if there's full employment. It was off-shoring and mass immigration that made it toxic.

  12. Working class girls started having kids before getting married because immigrant families had more kids and so went to the front of the housing queue.

    Being a single mother was the only way to compete.

    As always it's the media lying about everything related to immigration that leads middle class people to have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.

  13. Just to be clear I'm not saying mass unemployment plus welfare doesn't select for the kind of bad traits that are most suitable for life on welfare - it's an environment like any other so it will.

    I'm saying the selection pressure started when full employment was abandoned as a policy aim.

  14. The review notes that you can breed mice to voluntarily run in a wheel in ten generations, but wonders if a 100 years of welfarism "and evident to some extent from 1870", could have an effect on humans

    However, for the humans under discussion, a generation is closer to ten years, rather than thirty.

    And don't forget that until about 1930 (yes 19, not 18!), girls could marry at 12 in the UK!

    Mr B J Mann

  15. It seems obvious to me that our welfare systems should be changed to a guaranteed job. Government becomes the employer of last resort. It you are out of work government will hire you at a low but livable wage. Jobs include cleaning up graffiti, public lands maintenance, cleaning our cities and road right of ways, and public works projects.

    I spent a considerable amount of time in the military, and every military leader knows he needs to keep his men working, doing something. Letting them layabout is stupid and leads to all kinds of problems.

    So, the intelligent society will change welfare into workfare.

    1. Yes indeed, and in line with your suggestion, a new study by Benjamin Crost (see weblink below) suggests that workfare employment can cancel out approximately 60 percent of the negative psychological effect of unemployment. The effect of workfare is also large in absolute terms, corresponding to approximately 35 percent of the within-individual standard deviation of life satisfaction.

    2. I wonder if you give any thought to the nature of work and the way it has changed in the last thirty or so years? The availability of work since the late 70s. Most of the work I am referring to is the low skilled labour already mentioned above work for the badly educated masses.
      You seem to assume work is just what it is and those who reject it are some how 'bad' why not think what has changed or what is wrong with work that would make people not want to take part? I might say they are reacting to a work environment that devalues them and exploits them and they have realised this and refuse to take part, and you argument casts them as degenerate because they do not want to be exploited in a environment that has steadily favoured them less and less. This would be a criticism of the work environment and the conditions imposed on workers or potential workers. History tells us Mrs Thatcher was willing to accept a huge rise in unemployment as a result of her de-industrialisation of the UK, a causal factor?
      What I am trying to say in a rather ham fisted way is, may be the resistance is not to work per-say but to work as it is now insecure. low pay, under valued etc These things are not a natural evolution in our employment environment they are engineered to some degree. So what you observe might have so credence although your samples are quite small I can't help but feel you have not looked deeply enough for causes. Just think these perceived genetic changes might be a leap forward to a deeper feeling of social injustice amongst the lower echelons of our hierarchical society.

  16. The great majority of welfare spending, in the UK at least, goes to pensioners, that is to say those who have worked; to children, those who (for now, at least…) can’t work; as tax credits to those who are already in work, but against whose wages market forces, so-called, exert pressures so great that they remain unable to earn a living wage, no matter how hard they work; and towards the housing costs for many of those same workers where, once again, market forces have priced many ordinary men and women out of home ownership for a generation at least.
    That there are lazy, work-shy benefit scroungers living off the state – even as I type - and handing down their ‘…less conscientious and agreeable…’ habits to their children is beyond dispute, to the point where one wonders why we needed (another) study of it in the first place, if not to promote the further normalisation of libertarian economic doctrines, thought, prior to Hayek et al. somewhat extreme. That said, unpalatable questions must, indeed, be asked: why, for example, are there not concomitant studies seeking to analyse the tax-shy habits of that other, hardly so visible and much less researched, strata of welfare dependents, the wealthy, whose various ‘…less conscientious and agreeable…’ schemes to circumvent their own meaningful contributions to civil society are as little understood by the common working man as they are egregiously devious; even though their correction would go much further towards fixing some of the very same problems identified under the terms of Dr Perkins’ hypothesis? Shouldn’t we be asking that other vital question: are their own persistent ‘characteristics’ of tax avoidance genetically inherited or socially learned? Could we not put together a(nother) ‘interesting thesis: [are not] states [whose elites actively promote tax avoidance and evasion through legislative practices, or their lack] shaping up dependency behaviours?’ May we confidently go on to assert that many ‘generations’ of such ‘anti-social behaviour’ [help to create] an increasing number of employment-resistant persons, who contribute very little, soak up resources, and are likely to have more surving (sic) [tax]-shy children…?’ Perhaps we might then also say that, far from being the ‘start of a trend, which is [obviously] alarming enough…many of the [tax]-shy might have married similar persons anyway, and what [tax avoidance] is doing is ensuring that their children survive…?’ di immortales!
    What studies like this do, what all studies like this are designed to do, is to blame poverty on the poor, to present systemic lack of opportunity as a kind of culturally transmitted laziness and to offer up entitled faux-paternalism as reasoned argument for the maintenance of the status quo. A species of verbal legerdemain which, frankly, warrants a deal of study in its own right. The principle is clear: failure to honour the social contract intrinsic to a society where state-levied taxation is the democratically accepted means employed to ameliorate enduring inequalities is every bit as corrosive to that contract at the wealthy end of the society, where those taxes are robustly and routinely avoided, as it is at its poor base, where they remain so keenly needed.