Could welfare state research rise from the rubble of Covid-19?

Global recession may make public and policymakers think more about those ‘at the bottom of society’, says social policy academic

April 28, 2020
council housing estate
Source: iStock

An expert on the welfare state who turned to novel-writing after admitting that his research had no real-world impact has suggested that increasing awareness of inequalities and social issues could be one silver lining of the coronavirus crisis.

Peter Taylor-Gooby, a professor of social policy at the University of Kent, whose research focuses on public trust, the decline of the welfare state and its replacement by market ideas, said that “a lot of people who never thought they would go anyone near universal credit or benefits like that are finding that they’re in the situation of having to claim” such support as a result of the pandemic.

“They will be experiencing what it’s like to have to wait five weeks for benefits and how low the levels of benefits are, even with the £20 a week [emergency] supplement.

“Many of them will also be experiencing the impact of [austerity] cuts, because somebody with a family living in an average rented house in the London area on universal credit is almost certain to run into the cap on benefits, because their rent and their allowances will take them up beyond that level,” he said. “I wonder if that will make a difference [to attitudes to the welfare state].”

Professor Taylor-Gooby added that there had been “some interest from ministers” in a new British Academy programme he was involved in on the potential long-term impact of the pandemic from the perspectives of a range of humanities and social sciences subjects, but it was “very hard to say” whether the interest would sustain in the wake of the virus.

“It may be that there will be quite a profound recession, and that seems increasingly likely. There will be very high levels of unemployment. That may provide energy for people thinking about how the benefits system and social housing works for the people at the bottom of society,” he said.

“Unless there are substantial changes in government policy, we’re going to see an increase in inequality, I think. That may give you an impetus for more social policy, but at the same time it makes people think about the issue of inequality and the issues of welfare more.”

He added that it was crucial that there was “some kind of coordination of recovery packages in different countries” in response to the pandemic.

In a previous interview with Times Higher Education in 2016Professor Taylor-Gooby admitted that his academic research had no real-world influence but hoped that his first novel, The Baby Auction, might.

Does he think that his scholarly output may have more impact now that social disparities have been highlighted so starkly by Covid-19?

“I hope so. One thing about this crisis has been that governments, the general public and the media have paid a lot of attention to experts. That’s rather different from the debate about Brexit, for example, where there were a lot of attacks on experts and experts were devalued,” he said.

In any case, even if his academic work continues to have little influence outside social science, there is always his third novel, which was published online this month.

Blood Ties, like his previous books, is about the implications of a world dominated by market principles and follows an advertising executive who is blackmailed into leading a campaign to make modern slavery acceptable to the public.

Professor Taylor-Gooby said it was already “going quite well”, with the novel featuring within the top 10,000 of Amazon’s bestsellers list.

“I think it’s because people are reading more during the lockdown,” he said.

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