A Review of Adam Perkins’s ‘The Welfare Trait’

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The Welfare Trait has thus far attracted little media attention. This is perhaps a mercy. Were it to do so, its author, Dr Adam Perkins, would no doubt be forced to confront a howling hate mob outside his office twenty-four hours a day. Perhaps he would even have to move to an East Asian university, which these days is the usual route taken by European eccentrics (such as Nick Land and Neven Sesardic) who are determined to make fools of themselves in public by uttering unpalatable truths.

Painstakingly, Perkins constructs his core argument: that the welfare state, the foundational institution of modern Britain (the Church of England having sadly declined), contains the seeds of its own eventual destruction. A large body of evidence, which Perkins reviews, supports the intuitive idea that habitual welfare claimants tend to be less conscientious and agreeable than the average person. Such habitual claimants also tend to reproduce at higher rates than the general population, a pattern found across nations and time periods. They also seem to adjust their fertility in response to changes in the generosity of welfare provision, having fewer children in times of austerity and more when governments turn on the spigot marked “spending”.

Over time, therefore, the work motivation of the general population is lowered. This occurs through both genetic and environmental channels. Personality traits are substantially heritable (meaning that a decent percentage of the variation in these traits is due to naturally occurring genetic variation). Given this fact, habitual welfare claimants with employment-resistant personalities are likely to have offspring with similar personalities. Furthermore, Perkins argues that children raised in a household with disagreeable and unconscientious parents are likely to become more employment-resistant than they would if raised in more fortunate circumstances. It could be argued that the null shared environmental effects on personality usually found in twin studies mitigate against the family environment as a vessel for the transmission of work-resistant personality, and Perkins, surprisingly, does not really defend himself against this charge. Such a defence is easily mustered however - problem families from the very lowest percentiles of socioeconomic status are rarely retained in twin studies, even if they are initially recruited.

With praiseworthy boldness, Perkins gets off the fence and recommends concrete policy solutions for the problems that he identifies, arguing that governments should try to adjust the generosity of welfare payments to the point where habitual claimants do not have greater fertility than those customarily employed. The book no doubt went to press before the Chancellor announced plans to limit child tax credits to a household’s first two children, but such a measure is very much in the spirit of this bullet-biting book. The explicit targeting of fertility as a goal of welfare policy, however, goes beyond current government policy. Perkins perhaps should also have argued for measures to boost the fertility of those with pro-social personalities, such as deregulation of the childcare and housing markets to cut the costs of sustainable family formation.

He also argues for greater provision of early life intensive childcare, albeit highly limited in scale - essentially offered only to the offspring of the worst households. As evidence from Quebec shows, universal kindergarten provision is just warehousing, likely to do more harm than good. When such programs are implemented en masse, it is difficult to employ sufficiently high-quality staff, given the low pay and status of the work. For these and other reasons I think this is a more questionable policy proposal - it is necessary to stop such programs being taken over more affluent parents who do not really need them, but it is presumably quite difficult to get highly employment-resistant parents to sign up for Perry Preschool-style projects in the first place. Careful trials are needed - the Quebec experience, and the failure of Sure Start in the UK, illustrate the pitfalls. It is a slight weakness of the book that Perkins is overly reliant on Perry Preschool for his estimates of the economic benefits of intensive early-life educational interventions - but given the state of the extant literature there is probably little else he could have done.

Perkins is perhaps to be praised most of all for the breadth of his thinking and integrated knowledge of scholarly literatures. The incentive structures of academia encourage extreme siloization, meaning that academics are often extremely ignorant outside of their little area of specialism. Perkins, by contrast, draws with great fluency on economics, anthropology, behaviour genetics, biology, and personality psychology. The result is a courageous and carefully researched book teeming with novel insights and highly original sweeping syntheses. It deserves to be an integral part of the political debate on welfare, as we struggle to construct sustainable structures that can survive the demographic demands of the 21st century. It is also a model of clear writing that is easily accessible to the layman and the policymaker alike. I recommend it to readers in the confident expectation that they will think likewise.

Click here to buy 'The Welfare Trait'