This is What Austerity Looks Like

Joanna Mack, The Open University

 

The hulking, charred remains of Grenfell Tower stands as a symbol of the disastrous results of years of austerity, deregulation and outsourcing. When government ministers sit on warnings of the fire risk of high-rise social housing, when penny-pinching renovations involve unsafe cladding, when councils run inadequate inspection regimes, when warnings from tenants are ignored, then there is nothing accidental about the resultant loss of life. It is social murder.

 

Grenfell tower remains

Image source: ChiralJon/FlickrCC BY 2.0

 

While Grenfell has brought these issues into focus, it is just the tip of the damage done by the neoliberal agenda to decrease the size of the state and the years of elective austerity. In the Violence of Austerity, Vickie Cooper and David Whyte, and their co-authors, set out the depth and extent of this damage, the way the very fabric of society had been dismantled and people’s lives impoverished. The effects are being felt by everyone, but one of the groups that has been hardest hit has been families with children and, in particular, lone parents.

Back in 2010, the coalition government promoted their aggressive programme of cuts, justified as an economic ‘necessity’, as fair, as something we were ‘all in together’. It was only after leaving office, the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – accusing the former chancellor George Osborne of taking the axe to welfare to boost Conservative popularity – admitted that the policies were designed to hit the incomes and housing security of the poorest households. And that’s what they did.

While the incomes of households without children on middle incomes rose between 2010 and 2015, those of the poorest two deciles fell by around six per cent. Before these cuts, adults in households with children were already over twice as likely to be in poverty as adults without children.  Lone parents – of whom, before the cuts, two-thirds were in poverty – saw the severest percentage reductions: getting on for ten per cent (around £2,000) for those out of work and nearly seven per cent for those in work.

And these households already had a hand-to-mouth existence, were already missing out on the most basic of contemporary needs. Before the impact of current changes to the benefit system had taken effect, the Poverty and Social Exclusion survey found that in 2012 more than two and a half million children, around one in five, lived in a home that is cold or damp. Over a million children, just under one in ten, missed out on an essential item of clothing. One in twenty households couldn’t afford to feed their children adequately, resulting in 600,000 children missing out on one or more of three meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables each day, or meat, fish, or the equivalent, while 300,000 children went without two or more of these essential food items.

 

So, when the Coalition government opted for a programme of progressively harsher cuts to welfare spending of around £20 billion, the outcomes were entirely predictable – and predicted.  Back in 2012, the Institute for Fiscal Studies was warning that the absolute living standards of poorer households were declining and that as the welfare cuts began to bite there would be further pain in 2012–13 and beyond.

As a result, the UK’s child poverty record has slipped far behind many other nations with similar levels of economic development. Eurostat, which gathers comprehensive data across Europe, reports that in 2014 over 22 per cent of children in the UK lived in deprived households, taken as being unable to afford for three or more of a range of household items, compared with 14 per cent in France, around 12 per cent in Germany and a mere four per cent in Norway and Sweden. In 2007, before the austerity years, the UK’s rate was 15 per cent – well below the EU average. Now it is above.

Throughout childhood, poverty raises the risk of premature death.  The progress that had been made in the 1980s and 1990s in reducing child mortality rates, shuddered to a halt in this millennium with the result that the UK has fallen behind other European countries with similar levels of development. The BMA notes that if the UK had the same all-cause death rate as Sweden, around 1,900 children’s lives would be saved each year.

The UK infant (0 to 1 years) mortality rate, at around four deaths per 1,000 births in 2014, is higher than all but two of the nineteen Euro area member states. About half of these deaths are linked to short gestation and low birth weight, both of which are highly associated with deprivation.  Babies born into poorer families in deprived neighbourhoods are, as a result of many interlocking factors, more likely to die at an early age than children from richer families.

In addition, children born in poor areas have, as is well and long established, a shorter life expectancy than those born in rich areas and a much shorter period free of the limiting effects of illness and disability – inequalities that are increasing.

As well as the sharp reduction in benefit levels, the Coalition government also introduced a far more punitive regime, with more restrictive conditions for the receipt of benefits and tougher sanctions. These sanctions came with a new set of fixed-period suspensions of benefits ranging from four weeks to three years. Claimants are not allowed to appeal till two weeks after the decision. Combined with administrative delays in processing applications through over-loaded benefit offices, it leaves many desperate and penniless.

 

food bank queue- food poverty

Image source: www.foodpoverty.org.uk

 

Kayleigh Garthwaite, in her book Hunger Pains, talked to Gemma who was four days from giving birth when she ended up in a food bank in Stockton-on-Tees. She and her partner had had no money for three weeks as they waited for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to process their jobseeker’s allowance claim:

 ‘I was crying on the phone to them [the DWP] telling them I am pregnant. I don’t want my baby coming home to a house with no gas or electric. We have laminated floor and it’s so cold.’

Allowing a pregnant woman to go without food in a cold, unheated home, is to compromise her baby’s life-chances. WHO defines ‘child maltreatment’ as an action that in the context of a relationship of power results in ‘actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity’. If an individual takes such actions then they may be liable to prosecution. Yet if a political system results in such actions, it is seen as an inevitable, if unfortunate, by-product of economic necessity. This is not covert violence but overt violence.

 

After winning the 2015 election, the Conservatives announced a further £12 billion of welfare cuts, which included limiting tax credits to two children, a continued freezing of working age benefits and a lowering of the level of the benefits cap.  The poorest households were, again, the hardest hit; poor households with children were hit the hardest of all, set to lose up to 12% of their income.

The damage caused by austerity has been well documented. The United Nations has issued damning reports.  Claimants have told their stories. Advocacy groups have warned of the dangers and damage being inflicted.

All ignored.

 

en-austerity-now-march

Image source: Peter Damian/WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0

 

Instead, the government has blamed the problems of poverty on the poor themselves, the life styles of individual families and their parenting practice.  Thus the rolling back the state could continue and the state’s responsibilities to provide an adequate safety net be abandoned.

But, suddenly, this dominant discourse seems to be unravelling. In the general election, the Labour Party, campaigning on a clear anti-austerity agenda (in contrast with the 2015 election), far outperformed expectations, upturning conventional thinking on what is politically possible.  Last week, the High Court ruled that the government’s benefit’s cap is unlawful, illegally discriminating against single parents with young children. Delivering his verdict, High Court judge Mr Justice Collins said the benefit cap was causing ‘real damage’ to lone parent families, noting that ‘poverty can have a very damaging effect on children under the age of five’.

And Grenfell Tower has unleashed a wave of anger at the way in which the poorest have been treated.  The voices of the poorest have started to be heard.

But this should not be mistaken for the end of austerity. For all of the government’s sudden talk of a change in direction, all the planned cuts to benefits are still going ahead. The predictions of a sharp rise in the numbers of children in poverty remain in place.

To reverse austerity will need not just a change in direction, but a complete reversal. And even with that, it will take years to overcome the vast damage already done.  It will need a real commitment to the transfer of income and wealth from the rich to the poor. It will require a sustained challenge to the neoliberal ideology that has dominated for the last thirty years.

But, if there is a long way to go, the first cracks are appearing.

 

Joanna Mack is an honorary senior research fellow at the Open University and contributory author in the ‘Violence of Austerity’ where she writes on ‘Child Maltreatment and Child Mortality’.

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Rough sleepers in policy and practice: chaotic and off course, or misunderstood?

Dan McCulloch

The Open University

Since 2010 the number of people sleeping rough has increased year-on-year, according to official estimates. Historically, rough sleepers have been the subject of national government policies, which have made distinctions between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ individuals. However, more recently, government policies have also employed other terms to describe rough sleepers’ lives. Terms such as ‘chaotic’, ‘off track’, and ‘off course’ have been mobilised in policy framings of rough sleepers’ lives. These policy terms suggest a particular way of understanding the lives of rough sleepers – as disorganised, abnormal and headed in the wrong direction.

But, to what extent to these reflect the experiences and understandings of rough sleepers themselves? One way to consider this question is to explore rough sleepers’ accounts of their own lives, an approach I take here, drawing upon work undertaken for my PhD.

In that research, I spent nine months in homelessness services, talking to people who had slept rough. I also interviewed 17 people who identified as having slept rough or having had no accommodation over a period of nine months.

Rough sleepers’ stories

Within the research, life mapping was a tool employed to assist rough sleepers in creating visual and verbal accounts of their lives. Life mapping allowed rough sleepers to draw their story whilst also describing it. Below are two examples of the life maps created in the research. These maps are visual representations of rough sleepers’ lives.

As is visible from Kelvin’s life map, he did not see his life as ‘chaotic’, but rather, as orderly. Kelvin divided his account this into four main topic areas – schooling (left centre), employment (right), relationships (left) and accommodation (lower centre). Within Kelvin’s account, stories of successes and disappointments were evident. Samantha’s life map also showed order in her life.

Kelvins Life Map

Kelvin’s life map

Like Kelvin’s, Samantha’s map also shows a life which is not ‘off track’ or ‘off course’. This is visible in the line drawn between key points in her life, showing both high points and low points in her story.

Samanthas Life Map

Samantha’s life map

These life maps show visually the order and mixed successes of rough sleepers’ lives, which stand in contrast to the claims of ‘chaotic’ and ‘off track’ lives made in policy.

Being homeless

More generally, rough sleepers also spoke about their experiences of being homeless. Sleeping rough often required management of unusual or new situations, such as deciding where to stay and whether to engage with homelessness services. David spoke about sleeping rough in an area he knew well, and the ways in which that allowed him to deal with the risk to his safety, but also put him at risk of being seen by people he knew, saying:

“I didn’t want to leave the area ’cause I knew it so well. But I didn’t want to be seen, I was embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t want to be seen by anyone I knew, to see me in that situation, sleeping rough. Why, I don’t know, some part of my dignity hadn’t quite died.”

To manage the difficulties that sleeping rough could bring, individuals often engaged in behaviours which might seem chaotic or unusual to others, but could be seen as rational in the context of their situation. Craig stayed in Patford, a small village over two hours walk from the nearest town. In Patford, Craig was largely unable to access the services such as food, water, and washing facilities that he would’ve been able to access in the nearest town. However, Craig spoke of his reasons for staying in Patford, stating:

“I just know it’s safe. … I can have a fire. Alright, it takes you an hour to get into town, but I’m not gonna sleep in a…doorway over here.”

Similarly, using local homelessness services could provide some facilities for rough sleepers. As Stuart noted, such services could provide vital resources, both physical and mental for rough sleepers:

“I remember coming here in the mornings, like half eight in the mornings when it opens, just like, you know, so relieved to just get in somewhere, and I’d get myself in the shower. Sometimes I’d just stand, you know, I’d stand under that hot shower for about ten minutes just standing there, you know, kind of recharging myself.”

However, homelessness services weren’t always ideal for rough sleepers, as Victor highlighted:

“I’m extremely grateful to having a roof over my head and being able to eat something. Umm, that is what I can be grateful to. I’m not going to say that the umm oh it’s a perfect place to be, it’s lovely, it’s warm, it’s this, it’s that. ‘Cause it isn’t, right. Umm, it’s horrible. It can actually get you quite down”

Planning for the Future

In addition to their accounts of homelessness, rough sleepers also spoke about their plans for the future. In contrast to policy views that saw their lives as ‘off course’ or lacking in order and long-term planning, rough sleepers spoke about the risks of making long-term plans. For many, their situation of homelessness made the future hard to plan, as was the case for Laura:

“I’m not so sure on the future. The future’s uncertain and I hate the feeling of not knowing. If I knew what was going to happen I could plan ahead, get ready for it. And my life at the moment has been for many years, it’s a waiting game.”

Jane also spoke about the dangers of making long-term plans, suggesting that it was more suitable to make short-term plans whilst homeless, as circumstances can change these plans with little or no warning:

“It’s a case of day by day now. That’s literally all it is, is day by day. No-one can predict the future. No-one whatsoever. You can try but something’ll come along and completely pull that all apart within seconds so it’s day by day at the moment.”

As Jane’s and Laura’s accounts both show, making long-term plans when experiencing homelessness can be difficult, due to the possibility of circumstances changing without warning. Thus, short-term, but orderly planning, often provided a more rational way to navigate through the conditions of being homeless.

Implications

So, what does all this tell us? Whilst policy documents talk of rough sleepers in ways which still echo distinctions of deservingness, recently they have also spoken of rough sleepers as having ‘off track’ or ‘off course’ and ‘chaotic’ lives. However, rough sleepers themselves talk of their own lives not as ‘chaotic’ or ‘off track’. Within their accounts, rough sleepers highlighted the difficult conditions and circumstances which being homeless carries. They described attempts to manage these, employing various strategies and attempts to maximise the limited means and resources available to them at the time. These are essentially ‘management tactics’ – and while they may initially appear ‘chaotic’ or ‘illogical’ to outsiders, understood in context they reveal themselves as being rational. As such, whilst policy makes judgements about rough sleepers’ lives as being ‘chaotic’ and ‘off track’, these often misunderstand the lived experience of sleeping rough. Instead, a policy strategy which recognises the importance of individual context and experience, and supports the use of personalised rough sleeper-led approaches, could provide a successful platform for understanding the experiences, strengths, and self-defined needs of rough sleepers, and could be key to reducing repeat homelessness.

*All location, service, and individual names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved in this research.

Why are the harms caused by poverty so ignored?

Joanna Mack , The Open University

and Stewart Lansley, Bristol University

Over the last three decades, overall wealth in Britain has doubled, yet the number of people falling below the minimum standard of living set by society as a whole has risen alarmingly, from just over one in six in 1983 to nearly one in three today.

The view promoted by the coalition government ministers and much of the media is that rising poverty is largely self-inflicted and a matter of individual failure – ‘a lifestyle choice’ as ministers like to call it. This individualistic focus on the causes of poverty echoes a tendency within social sciences and criminology to focus more on ‘the abstracted rational actor, as the primary unit of harm analysis’ rather than the differential impacts on different social groups of wider social and economic changes. Furthermore, it enables a policy focus that sees the role of the state as limited to changing the behaviour and aspirations of those who ‘fail’ – often through punitive means, such as benefits sanctions – and providing some, limited, support to enable them to change their prospects. Thus the coalition government imposed a series of ongoing cuts in benefit levels, leading to rising numbers turning to charitable help for the most basic of needs.

In our new book, Breadline Britain – the rise of mass poverty, we chart the rise in poverty in Britain over the last three decades through four large scale surveys – the ‘Breadline Britain’ surveys of 1983 and 1990 and the subsequent ‘Poverty and Social Exclusion’ surveys of 1999 and 2012. These surveys measure poverty using the public’s views on what is an unacceptable standard in contemporary Britain. Respondents are asked which of a long list of items and social activities, from a basic diet and minimum housing decency to a number of personal and household goods and leisure and social activities, they consider to be essential for living in Britain today.

This method establishes a minimum standard based on what the majority of people think are the necessities of life, which everyone should be able to afford and no-one should have to do without. This is the nearest we have to a democratic definition of poverty. It’s a standard that has support from all groups in society, across different social classes, genders, ages and, significantly, political affiliations. These surveys conclusively show that the public take a clear relativist view of poverty.

In 2012, the proportion of people who could not afford (as opposed to did not want) a number of the most basic of the publicly-defined necessities was higher than in 1983. Around six percent of households lived in a damp home in 1983, dropping to just two percent in 1990. It now stands at ten percent. The percentage of people who cannot afford to heat their home adequately has trebled since the 1990s, rising from three to nine percent. Nearly one in five children – 2.5 million – live with damp, while over half a million children live in a home that is both damp and cold.

Having enough food is another core aspect of everyone’s conception of poverty. The Department of Health has defined food poverty as ‘the inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet’. The proportion of households unable to afford two meals a day stood at three percent in 2012, back to the levels found thirty years earlier, having dropped to negligible levels in the intervening period.

There has also been an increase in the numbers struggling to maintain a diet of sufficient quality. Being able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables every day has been a consistent health message of recent years – yet the percentage of households where adults go without has risen from five percent in 1999 to seven percent in 2012. The proportion of households where the adult goes without ‘meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent every other day’ (a measure of adequate protein in the diet) is up – from two percent in 1999 to five percent in 2012. On the basis of the three adult food necessities (two meals; fruit and vegetables; and meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent), three and half million adults are not properly fed by the standards set by the public. In addition, half a million children are not adequately fed.

The negative impact of poverty on people’s lives is very well established. Children who live in damp and mouldy homes are up to three times more likely than those in dry homes to suffer from coughing, wheezing and respiratory illness. This has long term effects on people’s health and well-being beyond childhood. The number of ‘excess winter deaths’ – the additional numbers that occurred from December to March compared to the average for the rest of the year – is on the rise following a long-term decline since the 1960s.

Poor diet is a risk factor for the UK’s major killer diseases. In a review of the evidence, the Royal College of Physicians reports that it contributes to almost half of coronary heart disease and a third of cancers. For growing numbers, it leads to diabetes, for older people it increases the risk of fractures, and for pregnant mothers there is a greater chance of a baby of low-birth weight.

Figure 1: Material deprivation and other harms, UK 2012

Material deprivation and other harms, UK 2012The pressure on living standards is also having a much wider impact.  In 2012, under half of adults could afford all the necessities, fourteen percent lacked one, nine percent lacked two while thirty percent of adults were unable to afford three or more necessities. Moreover, the percentage of households that cannot afford each of the items and activities seen as necessities in 2012 and 1999 has, in nearly all cases, risen or stayed the same. For some, the increase has been large: those unable to afford to ‘replace or repair broken electrical goods’ up from twelve to twenty-six percent; and those unable to afford ‘appropriate clothes for a job interview’ – a particular problem for the young unemployed – up from four to eight percent. There was also a rise in the proportion of children missing out on a number of key necessities, in some cases more than doubling. In 1999, two percent of children couldn’t afford a school trip once a term; by 2012 it was eight percent.

Significantly, these material and social deprivations are associated with other disadvantages and harms. Figure 1 shows that looking across all the necessities, fifty-nine per cent of those who lack three or more necessities say their health is affected in some way (from ‘slightly’ to ‘a lot’) by their situation and seventy-three percent have at least one financial problem (that is, they are constantly struggling to keep up with their bills or have fallen behind, they have during the last year borrowed to meet day to day needs or have been in arrears on one or other of their household bills). In addition, half of those who lack three or more necessities suffer four or more of the standard twelve indicators of stress, anxiety and depression used in government surveys, a cut-off widely taken as an indicator of poor mental health. Those who lack control over their lives, and sense this lack of control, pay the cost in poor mental health.

Even those with moderate levels of material deprivation, those who lack one or two items, are more likely to face a range of other disadvantages. Thus, a fifth of those lacking one item and a fifth of those lacking two say their health is affected in some way, a quarter of those lacking one item and forty-one percent of those lacking two have one or more financial problems, and a quarter of those lacking one and nearly a third of those lacking two have poor mental health.

In sharp contrast, those lacking none of the necessities are much less likely to experience other disadvantages. There is a clear gap between the experience of the forty-seven percent of the population who have all the necessities and the fifty-three percent who lack at least one and especially those who lack three or more. Among this latter group a large majority face a range of other problems.

Using a cut-off point of those who cannot afford three or more necessities – a group whose deprivations are both overwhelmingly enforced (by lack of income) and whose lives are affected in deep and multiple ways – the level of deprivation poverty has been steadily rising over the last thirty years – up from fourteen percent in 1983 to thirty percent in 2012. While the poor today are in some respects better off than those in the early 1980s, in particular possessing a wider range of consumer goods, they are less a part of the society in which they live. It is this that impacts on people in such a harmful way. Not only are they more likely to suffer direct harms – such as illness – but they also suffer harm in terms of the denial of resources to – using Amartya Sen’s concept of capabilities – be able to live the life one values.

This sharp rise in poverty – and its related harms – cannot be explained by a sudden explosion of individual failings. In contrast, it is intimately connected to the rapid rise in inequality resulting from the great interlocking social and economic upheavals of the last thirty years, many of them politically driven. The rolling back of the welfare state, the deregulation of markets (in particular financial markets), and the impact of increasing unrestricted terms of trade through globalisation have come at an enormous cost for increasingly large numbers of people.

Today’s working generation faces a much more treacherous labour market, one that has brought greater joblessness, the spread of low pay and deepening insecurity at work. These problems have been compounded by other changes from the shrinking of housing opportunities, especially for the young, to a deliberate shift in the burden of economic and social risks from the state and employers to the individual. People have increasingly been left to cope by themselves at the very time when insecurity and uncertainty have been on the rise.

The widespread harms caused by poverty have been ignored – despite being well established – precisely because they stem from the very organisation of society. When that organisation is dependent on promoting the primacy of individual agency and responsibility – or, in current parlance, of personal choice – then the harms of poverty are all too easy to blame on the poor themselves. Recognising that poverty stems from the accumulated reductions in opportunities, pay and life chances that result from systematic barriers acting differentially on people – dependent on their social and economic context – poses a much more fundamental challenge. It requires different ways of thinking about, and greater levels of inquiry into, how society could be organised to produce lower levels of poverty. Crucially, it challenges the current, dominant, free market model of capitalism with it bias toward capital and widening inequality.

Fixed Odds Betting Terminals: the psychology of state-corporate harm maximisation

Steve Tombs and Jim Turner

International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research

The Open University

High street slot machine gambling – especially the mushrooming of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) – has entered the political debate in the UK. FOBTs are a type of gambling machine which has a set (’ fixed’) average level of payout (‘odds’). For example, a FOBT with fixed odds of 70% means that someone who puts in £10 to play would generally get £7 back, although this is an average: in practice, some players will get back more than this, others less. In recent years FOBTs have become common on British High Streets, allowing very large amounts of money to be gambled in a short amount of time.

In this context, it is worth taking a salutary glance to the other side of the world – to Australia, sometimes referred to as the ‘gambling capital of the world’. Central to this perhaps unwanted status is the phenomenon of ‘pokies’ – “a high-stakes, high-intensity” gambling machine which “has become ubiquitous in pubs and community clubs”. According to one recent analysis, “Australians lose more money gambling per person than any other nation. In 2011-12 this amounted to the equivalent of more than £650 per adult”.

Such per capita calculations obscure the real cost of class-targeted forms of gambling within that global figure. Frankston, in fact the second largest city in the state of Victoria but in effect a suburb of Melbourne, is desperately poor, beset by a range of economic and social problems. It is characterised by lower levels of income, a lower rate of education across all age ranges, higher levels of unemployment and youth disengagement, and poorer averages on every indicator of ‘health’ and ‘personal safety’ when compared to the Melbourne metropolitan or State averages.  It also has a higher rate of per capita gambling losses than the Victorian average. At the top of the walkway from the platforms of Frankston train station is a rather stunning visual: a more or less constantly displayed poster warning, in stark white lettering on a black background: POKER MACHINES HARM FRANKSTON. $62,225,277 LOST LAST YEAR ALONE.

Frankston

How, then, does the state seek to mitigate the harms caused by FOBTs  to already disadvantaged communities? In Southern Australia, the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation organises its regulatory approach around three commitments:

  • achieving high levels of voluntary compliance with gambling laws by setting clear expectations, encouraging the right behaviour and taking strong enforcement action where required
  • constraining the regulatory costs and restrictions imposed on the gambling industries to what is necessary to achieve regulatory objectives
  • upholding a culture of integrity and harm minimisation in the gambling industries.

This illustrates a preference by the state for self-regulation: regulatory costs for and burdens upon industry are to be minimised; and the object is to maintain safer cultures. A walk around many Australian bars, replete with gambling machines, reveals the nature of such self-regulatory efforts. “Take Control Of Your Gambling”, “Don’t Chase Your Losses: walk away”, “Stay in Control”, ”Set Yourself a Limit and Do Not exceed it” and “In the End the Machines will Win” say the signage aimed at the hapless punter. Such exhortations are thoroughly undermined by the psychology that is wired into the very design of these machines.  This makes the regulatory commitment to uphold “a culture of integrity and harm minimisation in the gambling industries” somewhat disingenuous.

Though it might not be obvious from the common media focus, only around 1% of people meet the diagnostic criteria for gambling addiction. We cannot, then, explain the level of gambling in Frankston and, increasingly, in some of the poorest boroughs, towns and cities across the UK, as a pathological type of behaviour exhibited by a small percentage of the population. We might more usefully learn some lessons from the psychology of behaviourism, which explores how people (and other animal species) respond to, and learn through, rewards and punishments. Rewards are specifically relevant to gambling machines as their design often draws directly on behaviourist psychology. Whilst they apply to all learning species, including humans, many behaviourist principles were first discovered in experiments on non-human animals. One classic animal study illustrates the problem with gambling machines from a behaviourist point of view.

In the most basic design of experiment, the animal is placed in an enclosure that has within it a button and a food dispenser. Whilst exploring, at some point the animal will make contact with the button and a food pellet will be released from the dispenser. The animal finds the food pellet rewarding and quickly learns to associate pressing the button with receiving a reward. Because it is usually not fed before the experiment starts, the animal will spend a lot of time pressing the button until it is no longer hungry. Transferring this lesson to FOBTs, playing is the equivalent of the animal pressing the button and getting a win is the equivalent of the food pellet reward.

Now, what happens when pressing the button doesn’t always make the food dispenser give out a food pellet? Say, for example, the food dispenser only gives out a pellet for every third press of the button: does the animal give up pressing the button, because it’s usually not rewarding? No, in fact the animal keeps on tapping that button: because it needs to press it three times as often to get the same reward, that’s what it does. You’ve probably already worked out the link to FOBTs: they don’t give out a reward every time (if they did they would just be change machines), but the fact that they don’t is one of the things that keeps people playing.

Back to our animal experiment. What if, instead of giving out a food pellet every three presses, the food dispenser is set up to give out food pellets randomly? Does the animal, not ‘knowing’ whether or not pressing the button will get it a reward, give up now? Again, no. This actually makes the animal press the button the most of all: because it cannot predict which presses will or will not be rewarded, the animal will press the button over and over and over again, periodically getting a food pellet reward which keeps it going. You can probably also see how this relates to FOBTs: the randomness of which plays get rewarded and which don’t is one of the factors that keeps the player going – the next play might be the one that ‘wins’. Psychologists have known about these principles since the classic work of B.F. Skinner with pigeons, which identified the role of random rewards in explaining how gambling ‘works’.

There’s one more twist. With the animal in our experiment, there are two things that will stop it pressing the button: (1) if there is a long enough sequence with no reward then, yes, eventually the animal will give up; (2) if the animal gets rewarded too often then it won’t be hungry anymore, so will no longer be motivated to seek the food reward. In a truly random set-up either could happen (although they would be fairly unlikely to happen very often). If you wanted to keep the animal pressing the button as much as possible you would put some limitations on the randomness, so that it never went too long without a reward but also never got so much of a reward that it lost the motivation to continue. The designers of FOBTs know this, so the machines are set up not to go too long without giving a ‘winning’ play. They are also, obviously, set up not to pay out more than they take in (FOBTs exist to make a profit, after all), so players will rarely reach a point where they are no longer ‘hungry’ for a ‘win’.

Overall, then, behaviourist psychology demonstrates how FOBTs are designed to maximise the amount that people play. If gambling is ‘harm’, then FOBTs are technologies of harm maximisation. This hardly squares with the regulatory gloss about a “culture of integrity and harm minimisation in the gambling industries”.

FOBTs – the so-called ‘crack cocaine’ of high street gambling – have recently become a matter of formal political debate in the UK. Out of this debate came the Gambling Protection and Controls, April 2014, which most notably required anyone using such machines to inform shop staff if they want to bet more than £50 cash at a time – rather than placing any maximum limit on spending. More recently, some UK councils have proposed a maximum individual stake for these machines. The Association of British Bookmakers inevitably claimed that the law would “restrict growth for the sector and mean hundreds of shops and thousands of jobs are now at risk“, even as others argued that ‘regulation’ was best left to the markets. An example of industry self-regulation in the UK can be seen in the work of the Senet Group, an ‘independent’ body with the ostensible aim of ‘promoting responsible gambling standards’, which was set up by the bookmakers William Hill, Paddy Power, Ladbrokes and Coral. In early 2015 the Senet Group, along with Gambleaware, launched a campaign with the strapline “When the fun stops, stop”. An example image from the campaign is shown below: notice how the word “fun” is presented much larger, and in a more eye-catching design, than the word “stop”. What message is this advert really sending about gambling?

Gambleaware

Again, there is much to learn via lessons from Australia. As anti-gambling campaigner Paul Bendat says, there the industry and its political allies have consistently used a series of discursive techniques to pre-empt effective regulation, so that the “harm to the disadvantaged” can proceed and accelerate. This strategy, resonant of those deployed by, for example, the tobacco and alcohol industries, denies that FBOTs are responsible for harm and deflects attention from the machine to the individual, claiming to defend individual freedoms and calling for voluntary, ‘responsible’ codes while citing potential employment losses as a risk of tighter regulation.

Viewed in the light of the psychology of FOBTs, the dangers of such claims, and their logic of self-regulation and appeals to cultures of harm-minimisation, are clear. Following the development, in the 1990s, by US criminologists of the term state-corporate crime, we might think of the failure to regulate FOBTs effectively as ‘state-corporate harm’ – harm generated by private companies which is facilitated by states. The dominant preference for self-regulation is probably best explained by the convergence of corporate and governmental interests that benefit from it: an enormously profitable industry, that at the same time generates considerable tax revenues for Government. Meanwhile, state and capital benefit by extracting revenue from populations who are already economically, socially and politically marginalised.