First I have a confession, I hate psychology. (Not all psychology, that would be pointlessly absolutist.) I studied it at A-Level and grew to despise it. A vast chunk of psychological research is simply pure junk. It is very often sexist and racist, hell the very foundations of the field are based on gross sexist and racist assumptions. The research is rarely robust and is prone to biased interpretations on the part of the researchers own bigotries. (Evolutionary psychology always induces vomit.)

The biggest danger is that iffy, take with a pinch of salt research tends to be presented as fact when the media reports on it, and to a somewhat slightly lesser degree in A-Level Psychology. The result of poor understanding and critical analysis allows bigots to use highly contested research as an absolute capital FACT to justify their prejudices.

The piece I’m discussing attributes to the welfare state, the creation of “Employment Resistant Personalities,” and to me this signifies everything that is wrong with the field. The author, Adam Perkins, a Lecturer of “Neurobiology” at King’s College London is releasing a right-wing bait book, “The Welfare Trait.”

Judging by the content of his article designed to promote said book, I’m going guess the entire book is an attempt to spuriously argue that welfare is creating an “employment resistant personality” time bomb that gets worse with each generation. No doubt Iain Duncan Smith will be wanking furiously to it as will the right-wing media.

My background is in Political Science, where, among other things, we research and discuss power relations at different structural levels. The sort of arguments that blame people for their own poverty aren’t new but they’re mostly discredited everywhere aside right-wing newspapers and Think-Tanks that are owned by rich old white men.

Attempting to fix faults within people who are trapped and locked under a glass ceiling isn’t going to solve a damn thing. It will always lead to failure. What does work is redistributive policies which narrow inequalities, along with an open social landscape. You can’t fix systematic failure by blaming the victims.

Now I’m going to comment on the article bit by bit:

“Few debates raise blood pressure more readily than those about the welfare state, especially those regarding the personality of those on benefits. Welfare claimants are both stereotyped as being genetically hardwired as un-conscientious and disagreeable, as well as the helpless victims of capitalism.”

Yet your research precisely entrenches the former.

“As I am both a personality researcher and former claimant of unemployment benefits, the issue of personality and the welfare state is of special interest to me and is the focus of my new book, The Welfare Trait.”

Oh good a #notyourshield/ “I’ve been there, done that.” defence. Just because you had to claim doesn’t mean anything. You, as a presumably “ex-scrounger” doesn’t mean you speak for “scrounger kind” then or now.

Personality is an area of psychology which is heavily filled with iffy assumptions and is rooted in ever changing social norms. Therefore it is structured to support existing hierarchies and oppressive social structures. Which we see on the next line:

“My research has led me to an alarming conclusion: the welfare state increases the number of children at risk of developing personality profiles that make them less likely to get a job.”

Personality and the welfare state is constructed in relation to the system, namely the ability to get a job. People are valued on their ability to be job ready for employers, the very people who are the gatekeepers, they are the ones who have the ability to control the system and who chooses who becomes a valued member of society or not.

No questions on the effects (or even existence) of structural inequality, nor on racism and sexism are ever brought up. Let’s think for a sec, for the young lad who didn’t pass the job interview because he has a funny accent and didn’t go to the right school, or the black person whose CV was thrown in the bin because they have an African name, or the woman frozen out of roles because she cannot be one of the boys.

“Research on personality and the welfare state is rare, but in the papers that have been published, the message is clear. Individuals with aggressive, rule-breaking and antisocial personality characteristics are over-represented among welfare claimants.”

We aren’t stupid, we know structural inequality exists and when you’ve been undermined, belittled and bullied constantly by systematic social oppression, anger and disillusionment is normal. In fact it is healthy. Only a totalitarian hellhole requires people to be “well adjusted” and “happy” towards their oppression.

“We also know that conscientious, agreeable individuals tend to make good employees. And epidemiological studies have shown that each generation living under the protection of the welfare state had lower work motivation than the previous one.

Viewed as a whole, this data suggests that willingness to violate norms concerning work and social responsibility is increasing, generation by generation. It’s as if the welfare state is gradually warping the personality profile of the population so that more people in each generation are resistant to employment.”

Again a person is only valued insofar as they support and fit the requirements for those who control the system. Here the underlining propositions gets creepier. I don’t have to repeat myself but this line of thought is very dangerous. It ignores a system which is highly unequal. A system where there’s not enough jobs, and no social ladder. Where youth unemployment is very high and where all the top positions just happen to be occupied by the same old aristocracy. Inequality is real, it is generational because those on top have blocked access to anyone who isn’t their own. People aren’t resistant to employment, the system is resistant to equality.    

As for connecting these problems to the welfare state, it is an attempt to chip away at the only lifeline people have at a time where ominous right-wing elites would love nothing more to exploit people or to throw them out onto the streets like trash. By justifying it as individual failure caused by peoples only safety net makes it easier to carry on with the brutality and violence. It is victim blaming.

Research like this is used to support the removal of social security support. But does anyone think that removing support is going to make people suddenly more employable? If anyone out there honesty thinks that, put your ideology into practice and go hire all the homeless people you see. After all removed and weaned from the corrupting influence of the state and made to survive in a Darwinian, dog eat dog existence, surely must make them employment ready?

As for inflicting psychological manipulation (torture!) on social security claimants, in order for them to be in line for employer’s expectations , is not going to change a thing (aside the suicide statistics) when the number of jobseekers outnumbers the number of open positions available to them. Remember most positions are filled by people job hopping.

Early years key to personality

The Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has carried out research showing that intensive preschool tutoring before age five – not done by the parent – significantly improves the life outcomes of disadvantaged children.

Heckman and colleagues showed that intensive preschool tutoring achieved its beneficial effects by altering the personality development of the children: disadvantaged children who received tutoring developed personality profiles that were significantly less aggressive, rule-breaking and antisocial than those of the untutored children.

Since the children were randomly assigned to receive the tutoring, Heckman’s work showed that exposure to childhood disadvantage is the active, environmental, ingredient in promoting the development of those personality characteristics that make people less likely to get a job.

Well-prepared by my own experience of unemployment to appreciate the power of the welfare state, it struck me that if the welfare state increases the number of children born into disadvantaged families, it will increase the proportion of individuals in the population who possess personality characteristics that make them resistant to employment, as a result of having been exposed to disadvantage during childhood.”

I don’t have much knowledge of the study quoted above, but observing from what’s said, still proves my point, children who have been supported to narrow the gap of their unequal circumstances do better, what a revelation, I’m shocked.

Now it gets cringe worthy, instead of concluding that equality is something to aim for, we nosedive into #notyourshieldism*. Equality can only be achieved by redistribution of wealth along with the freedom to move about wherever on the social landscape without discrimination.

Here, instead we get a spurious conclusion, that inequality is blamed on the welfare state itself. Of course in ever narrowing conditions, more children will face systematic discrimination and pressures that go with it. The existence of the welfare state is not the cause, it is a safety net of an unequal society. In a way it shouldn’t exist as it currently does but it exists as it does simply because we don’t live in a fair equal society. Those at the top don’t want to share or play fair.

And again people have every right to be angry, to not comply, to question a system that denies them opportunity and calls them scrounging scum at every chance it gets. It’s not a personality defect, it’s a reaction to having a door slammed in your face everywhere you go.

“This happens because people with these characteristics are over-represented among welfare claimants and so are unlikely to manage their welfare money conscientiously to benefit their children. They are also unlikely to give their children the necessary attention for adequate personality development.”

Of course these perfectly normal traits are found in a lot of welfare claimants. Systematic oppression doesn’t make people happy bunnies.

People can’t spend money they don’t have, children can’t access resources they don’t have access to. Stressed and oppressed people also aren’t going to spend their days skipping around merrily, holding hands and singing songs about how joyful things are.

“This seems to explain the tendency researchers have observed for work motivation to decline in each generation living under the protection of the welfare state. Each generation will contain proportionately more children who are exposed to disadvantage. In turn, the dysfunctional personality characteristics that result from this disadvantaged upbringing mean that these children will have a greater risk than average of becoming welfare claimants themselves and neglecting their own children, thereby perpetuating a cycle of personality mis-development.”

Again no shit, classism, racism and sexism etc. do tend to be entrenched from generation to generation. We don’t live in a meritocracy. We can’t escape the welfare state if we can’t escape being shat upon by those on top. The only way to the break the cycle, to create a healthy and happy society is to dismantle systems of oppressive power and share power horizontally instead of vertically.

More children born to welfare claimants

I began investigating the effects of the welfare state on how many children welfare claimants have. Through a freedom of information request I obtained government data from the Office of National Statistics on reproduction and employment in England and Wales for April to June 2013. These are split into three groups: working households, where every 16 to 64-year-old is employed; mixed households, which contain both employed and unemployed adults; and workless households, where all 16 to 64-year-olds are unemployed. It shows that the number of children born into English and Welsh households rises in step with the proportion of income from welfare benefits.

graph article

The implication contained in this is that the welfare state means more children are being born to welfare claimants than to employed citizens. But raw, census-style data such as this take no account of confounding factors. For example, this finding could also be an artefact of the greater material needs of larger families, leading to greater reliance on welfare benefits for reasons connected to poverty rather than personality.”

Oh boy, now it just gets very stupid. Yes impoverished women will likely have more children than those who have access to more resources. It’s a basic fact anyone who has ever researched poverty in world will know. You know what reduces the birth rate? Access to decent education. Do you know what access to decent education means? No really, take a guess…. It means equality, it means redistributing wealth to pay for resources a disadvantaged family/community couldn’t afford themselves.

“These problems have been addressed by studies in the US and UK that explored the causal links through follow-up interviews with people who claimed welfare. They found that claimants used less contraception when there were increases in the amount of benefits available and the number of children born to welfare claimants rose by 1% for every 3% rise in benefit generosity.”

Because I don’t have access to the studies behind the paywall, I can’t really comment. I don’t really know what they refer to, their data sets, what’s being claimed, length of unemployment, how the studies were conducted etc. Added note: The US and the UK are two of the most unequal countries in the Western sphere due to various discriminatory factors in play. They are also some of the least generous countries out there. According to his proposition, most of Europe must be breeding like crazy and is full of highly aggressive unemployable people.

The so called “generosity” (nice tabloidism there) of the welfare state doesn’t change why people need it in the first place. The truth is people need money and opportunities. It’s that simple.

Plus denying people basic human needs may make the birth rate higher. People in poverty who lack social resources do tend to have more children. (Source: Much of the world, history etc.) Unless state sanctioned murder is on the cards?

“This raises the alarming possibility that the welfare state has become a production line for dysfunctional, employment-resistant personality characteristics. In order to verify if this is indeed the case and, if it is, come up with reforms to change it, we need more coherent scientific research on personality and the welfare state.”

That last piece of language says it all. “A production line”. The impoverished are yet again dehumanized and compared to manufacturing terms. This is no different to Lord Freud referring to people as “stock”. The non-privileged are yet again viewed as having no inherent worth in their own humanity. Their only value is being productive economic units for those who have privilege.

The welfare state is not to blame. The welfare state does not cause these behaviours. I question whether these behaviours should even be considered innately negative. This is real suffering caused by a complexity of systematic abuse that the victims cannot entirely control. When a system excludes people to unjustly benefit others, of course people get angry, of course they don’t care about the system. When it goes too far, it’s this same anger that leads to revolutionary change. Maybe that’s what is feared, but no matter how much you pathologize anger as abnormal, you’ll never fix it, you’ll just make people angrier.

Lastly, these personality descriptors are only a problem because the disadvantaged display them. One could easily make the argument that the average Bullingdon boy is aggressive, rule-breaking and antisocial, yet those “defective” personality traits are perfectly normal, even celebrated in the rich. It doesn’t come into question because the Bullingdon boy, from the day he was born, never faced systematic discrimination. Employment, leadership has always been reserved for him.


(*If you’re wondering what I mean by #notyourshield, it is thus a term a hate group uses to defend against accusations of racism and sexism. They argue as they have female and PoC on their side, they couldn’t be racist or sexist. But the mere presence of Female and PoC members doesn’t make the group’s actions any less racist or sexist. Here we see the author is using his own experience of unemployment as a means to shield himself and speak for those he is harming. )

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