Connecting the Turra Coo and women’s work

Turra Coo plateWhy would someone give me a plate with a cow on it? This was a gift from a family member, recognising my obsession with all things to do with the 1911 National Insurance Act. The plate commemorates the incident of the ‘Turra Coo’ in 1913. The National Insurance Act required employers and workers to make weekly contributions from their wages in return for sickness and unemployment benefits and the right to health care. Some employers objected to the principle of making contributions, including a farmer from Turriff in Aberdeenshire. When he refused to pay contributions for his farm workers, his cow (the Turra Coo) was impounded by the local sheriff officers, leading to a local riot and the cow becoming an emblem of local protest. For the full story, see here
A hundred years on from this farmer’s protest, the Coo has now become a tourist attraction, with a statue in Turriff town centre*:

Turra Coo 2015

Turra Coo 2015

and a commemorative plate. So now I have my plate but I’m not sure I really want the plate on my office wall. The problem with the Coo is that it symbolises objection to the Act and the principle of National Insurance. There are a lot of problems with National Insurance as a principle for funding the welfare state but it has its supporters too and, at least in 1911, it provided the basics of health care and sickness benefits for low paid workers, particularly women.

Connecting the Turra coo to women’s precarious work

But I found another connection between the Coo and my research at the Social History Society conference last week. Here I had the privilege of hearing a paper by Valerie Hall on women farmers in North East Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th century. Professor Hall’s paper described the complex working lives of women, who combined domestic work, running the farm and a variety of entrepreneurial activities, including selling eggs and dairy products, breeding dogs, cattle and prize chickens, while also bringing up many children and grandchildren. Her presentation including some lovely pictures of cows and references to the Aberdeenshire ‘Doric’ – I couldn’t help but think of the Turra Coo. More important to my research though was the clear argument that it was not easy, or indeed possible, to identify where ‘work’ and ‘not work’ happened in these women’s lives. On the same panel we also heard from Professor Dianne Newell who talked about the indigenous women in British Columbia at around the same time, combining their ‘work’ in the salmon canning factories with household maintenance and ‘doorstep entrepreneurship’: making traditional baskets and rugs and trading these for cash or goods with middle class white tourists. Again the division between ‘work’ and ‘not work’ was blurred in an endless and seasonal struggle for survival.
The women described in these two conference papers lived in a different era and in worlds which have long changed but the reality of the complexity of women’s working lives continues, particularly for poor women in precarious part-time employment. In some ways these papers look like a reinforcement of the gendered idea that a ‘woman’s work is never done’, particularly a poor woman’s work, but for me they illustrate a rather different point.  Welfare benefits, and particularly incapacity benefits, depend on an understanding of what we mean by ‘work’.  Women’s working lives, and many disabled people’s lives, do not fit a conventional idea of work.  If welfare states are dependent on the idea that people (men or women) should ‘work’ and that their entitlement to benefits and services should be conditional on that, then we must question conventional, gendered assumptions about what constitutes ‘work’.
So thank you to the Turra Coo plate for helping me to make these links.

*thanks to Viv Cree for the photograph

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Book reviews

I’ve recently published a couple of book reviews, one on the history of the ‘underclass’ and another on women and social security. These two books provide important background for my own work which concerns the history of concepts of incapacity for work and how that relates to policy on the ground and on the particular challenges for women claiming incapacity benefits. Here’s a brief summary of what I thought about them.

Welshman, J. (2013) Underclass: a history of the excluded since 1880 2nd ed.
Bloomsbury: London (review published in Social Policy and Administration)

Media of Underclass

Welshman’s book provides us with a guided tour of the concept of the ‘underclass’ since the late 19th century, moving through related concepts such as ‘problem families’, ‘unemployables’, ‘socially excluded’ to the recent Coalition Government’s idea of ’troubled families’. A lot of this is about language: the language that policy makers use to talk about social problems and how that relates to the ideas that researchers use to look at the same problems. They don’t often connect but these ideas really matter. Once a concept like the underclass takes hold it is difficult to escape from it. We see that in the field of disability benefits with the current media obsession with ‘benefit scroungers and ‘hardworking families’. There isn’t much evidence for either of these concepts but the ideas take hold never-the-less and make it much more difficult for real people to navigate the shark-infested waters of benefits claiming. Welshman’s book is important because it shows us how these ideas have developed over the last century.

Goldblatt, B. and Lamarche, L. (eds.) (2014). Women’s Rights to Social Security and Social Protection. Oñati International Series in Law and Society. Oxford: Hart Publishing. (review published in European Journal of Social Security)

http://www.hartpub.co.uk/coverimages/9781849466929.jpg

Goldblatt and Lamarche, on the other hand, are mainly concerned with the present day. Their focus is on the difficulties that women have with accessing social security across the globe. The book reminds us that, across countries and across time, men and women’s participation in paid work and unpaid domestic and caring responsibilities is unequal and that this leads to unequal access to social security in old age or when paid work is not available. The book has a very broad reach, covering countries as far apart as China and Bolivia. There is a lot of detail for readers interested in particular countries but perhaps the most useful chapters are those that look at the issues from a broader perspective. These chapters provide useful overviews of the debates and may be particularly useful for readers who are looking for an introduction to the issue of women and social security with an eye to human rights and feminist analysis.

For the full reviews, see the links to the journals.

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to review books. Now I have to get on with some more.

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Challenge Poverty Week

PrintIt’s Challenge Poverty Week.  I’ve contributed a blog post to ‘Let’s discuss Poverty’ a blog site with contributions from writers and academics across Scotland, writing about their research on poverty. There are blogs on women, sanctions, children, students, and one from me on history. Have a look here

Challenge Poverty Week is co-ordinated by the Poverty Alliance. Here’s what they say about Challenge Poverty Week  17-23 October 2015:

“More than 900,000 people in Scotland live in low income households. In a rich country like ours this is unnecessary and unacceptable.

Challenge Poverty Week is an opportunity for you to raise you voice against poverty and show what is being done to tackle poverty across. Organisations large and small supported Challenge Poverty Week last year, and we hope even more get behind it this year. 

The main aims of the week are to:

  • Highlight the reality of poverty and challenge the stereotypes about exist about it;
  • Demonstrate what is being done across Scotland to address poverty
  • Increase public support for more action to combat poverty 

We are encouraging as many groups and individuals to get involved in Challenge Poverty Week by organising activities or taking part in activities organised by others.”

For information on events go to http://povertyalliance.org/challenge_poverty

and on Twitter #CPW15

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From the sick poor to the mobility impaired

For the Sick Poor, 1828

I found this bench in a park in a local park in a small town in Scotland. A date on the side of the bench says that it was erected in 1828. I am not familiar with the detailed history of this bench but it struck me as a historical artifact that was relevant to my research. Who knows whether the ‘sick poor’ appreciated the provision of this bench but I am sure it was well meant.

Sign on bridge

Just a little bit further along the river there is a footbridge, built to celebrate the millennium. On it there is this sign, which says ‘mobility impaired rest area’.  There didn’t seem to be anywhere to rest, just a flat bit and a railing.  I presume the purpose of this is to provide a flat area for people using wheelchairs or mobility scooters stop and look at the view without rolling down the bridge.  In which case it should really say ‘safe place for wheelchair users to stop’ or something like that.  There are many people with mobility impairments who, I imagine, would find it much more useful to have seat at this point, if it was really intended as a rest area.

I wonder what these differences in language, from the ‘sick poor’ to the ‘mobility impaired’ tell us about changing attitudes and policies for disabled people.  In 1828 there was a specific reference to poverty, although I don’t imagine a cast iron bench did much to alleviate that.  In the twenty-first century, there is an attempt to build in accessibility to the design of the bridge but the sign seems to be more concerned with getting the language right than really explaining why it is there.

Neither of these artefacts has much direct bearing on my research but they span a couple of centuries and remind me of the wider social context in which benefits policies operate.

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Poverty and disability benefits: a view from the past

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This week is Challenge Poverty Week, organised by the Poverty Alliance and aiming to increase awareness of poverty in Scotland.  Poverty is unacceptable and is a continuing problem in modern Scotland.  As part of the week of action I contributed to a blog, along with other researchers on different aspects of poverty.  I thought I would share my post here.

Poverty and disability are closely linked

Researchers have shown that disabled people are more likely to be out of work, in poorly paid jobs and living in poverty than other groups in society.  As a result many disabled people find themselves claiming welfare benefits, including Employment and Support Allowance if they find it difficult to work.  My research concerns the history of incapacity benefits, that is, social security benefits for people who are unable to work because of sickness or disability.  As I set out to write this post, I wondered what the relevance of this work was for ‘Challenge poverty’ week.  After all, ‘challenge poverty’ is about today and anti-poverty campaigners sometimes have an uphill struggle to show that poverty is a problem today, with critics often pointing to the past to show how much worse things used to be.  Others on the challenge poverty blog can explain why poverty is such a problem today.

My task is to show how many of the debates about poverty today are rooted in questions which have been around since the beginning of the welfare state and beyond.  To show this, let’s have a look at some quotations about people claiming disability benefits.  Can you guess the date?

Guess the date of these quotations

  1. Against the continued advance of a tide of unjustified claims to [] benefit there are two main lines of defence. The first is the adoption of measures to secure that a proper standard is applied in the issue of medical certificates for incapacity while the second consists in strengthening the safeguards to be adopted by [decision makers] in connection with the supervision of claims
  2. A life of idleness is bad for [her], and in our judgment she would have no difficulty in the present state of the domestic labour market, in obtaining suitable remunerative employment which is well within her physical capacity. In her own best interests we strongly recommend the appellant to get work.
  3. A … person may be regarded as incapable of work because he is unable to travel to work, but it does not follow that because he is unable to travel to his former employment he is entitled to sickness benefit. It is the duty of a .. person to do what is reasonably necessary to regain his position as a wage earner and so overcome the effects of any physical disability which he may be under.

[answers at the bottom of the page]

 Implications for benefits today

These quotations show that policy makers have been worrying about how to define incapacity for work since the very first sickness benefits in 1911.  This concern has led to tough and intrusive mechanisms for checking up on people across the 20th century.  The continuing theme which we can see in the development of incapacity benefits is one of distrust:  that people cannot be trusted to claim benefits honestly and that there must always be mechanisms for checking up on them and keeping them in line.  There has also been a continuing argument that ‘work is good for you’ and that people have a duty to get back to work as soon as possible after illness or disability.

Critics of disability benefits policies today argue that access to benefits has become more difficult, first of all by the redefinition of ‘incapacity for work’ brought about by Employment and Support Allowance and, secondly, by the introduction of work requirements for claimants.  Both of these changes to benefits policy have made life more difficult for people claiming benefits but the ideas behind them are not new.

The relationship to poverty

So what does this have to do with poverty?  It is well established that people with health problems and disabilities find it more difficult to get work, to stay in work and to earn adequate wages and that these difficulties are intensified for people with low educational qualifications.  So ‘incapacity for work’ has a direct link with poverty.  If the benefits paid to people because they are unable to work (or to find work) are kept deliberately low, poverty becomes even further entrenched.  It is even worse for those who are refused benefits when the definition of incapacity for work is tightly drawn. Policy makers claim that they make it difficult to claim benefits and that they keep payments low in order to ‘make work pay’ and to encourage people get back to work.  That is all very well when decently paid work is available and the barriers to work are removed.  But so long as these barriers exist, people will need adequate benefit payments to keep them out of poverty.

Dates of quotations

  1. 1931 Ministry of Health circular ‘National Health Insurance control of Expenditure on Sickness and Disablement Benefits’
  2. 1920 Appeal hearing against a refusal of sickness benefit
  3. 1917 Annual report of National Health Insurance Committee 

Further reading

Bambra, C. (2011) Work, worklessness and the political economy of health. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roulstone, A. and Prideaux, S. (2012) Understanding Disability Policy. Bristol: Policy Press.

blog first published on the Challenge Poverty blog

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