Rich People Just Care Less.

Image From today’s New York Times

While Mr. Keltner’s research finds that the poor, compared with the wealthy, have keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions, in general, those with the most power in society seem to pay particularly little attention to those with the least power. To be sure, high-status people do attend to those of equal rank — but not as well as those low of status do.

This has profound implications for societal behavior and government policy. Tuning in to the needs and feelings of another person is a prerequisite to empathy, which in turn can lead to understanding, concern and, if the circumstances are right, compassionate action.

What does this have to do with counselling?

Google “counselling for return to work.” The first link is to the notorious “Counselling the jobless back to work,”  an unreferenced glorification of the loathed and horrendously expensive and ineffective Work Programme. The opinions of  fraud-ridden G4S and A4E are provided with no context at all. But then, this is another therapy today piece that sees unemployed people as “a huge opportunity.”

The links after that are to workplace welfare schemes, many of which are no doubt very good. And then there’s one provided by ATOS. The list of suicides and deaths connected to ATOS is into the tens of thousands.

Imagine if people who were unemployed and needed counselling were treated in the same manner as people who visited a prestige counselling service. The agencies that offer a low-fee service are often better supervised than the individuals who pitch their services at people who can afford £100+ an hour but they’re mostly staffed by students.


Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission Report

Valuable, interesting and easy to read, the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission Report offers a detailed analysis of the problems of gentrification and enduring poverty.

The most visible symbol of investment in Tower Hamlets though is the shining towers of Canary Wharf. Now a global financial hub it has created hundreds of thousands of jobs and brought considerable wealth to the borough: The Tower Hamlets economy is worth £6billion per year, more than Monaco, Malta and Jersey, and provides 230,000 jobs, 60,000 more than there are working age residents. That wealth has not trickled down to most of its residents though. 49 percent of children in the borough live in poverty, the highest proportion in the country, there are significant health inequalities within the population. A fifth of households have an annual income of under £15,000, wheras the average salary of people who work in the borough is £78,000, the 2nd highest rate in UK. 10% of working age residents earn £100,000 or more, compared to 2% in London.

How Character Is Made

Rejoice! Divinity revisits the earth and all will be well! Though it may take some time.

In religion, only the divine being is infallible.

ImageThe Catholic church argues about whether the Pope is infallible or not but it would seem that we are in an era when there are several thousand infallible people and they all work for the same organisation: Job Centre Plus.

The brown envelopes with the window that shows a font from the 1970’s never bring good news but unlike many of her friends Marianne forces herself to open them as soon as they arrive. Today, a Friday, one arrived around 2pm to let her know she’d been sanctioned by the DWP and would not be getting any money for the next month. £280 is what keeps Marianne from month to month, direct debts for utilities coming out regularly (Direct debits are the cheapest way to pay bills and she avoids the prepayment cards at all costs because they are the most expensive way of paying for light and warmth.) a carefully judged and seldom varied weekly food shop and £5 for travel takes up the rest. There is no room for manoeuvre. So removing that £280 means hunger and an overdraft accruing interest.

The people at Marianne’s Job Centre are fairly helpful and she went round there with the letter to speak with one of the managers who was surprised and then, looking at her computer, became quietly angry. What had happened was that Marianne had been moved from fortnightly to weekly signing on, but the Job Centre hadn’t told her that. She’d arrived on the date arranged a fortnight after her last sign on to be told she’d missed a previous appointment and needed to sign on at the late desk, in three days time.

Marianne arrived at the time that had been written on her appointment card but the computer had a different time booked, so she sat for half an hour watching the man at the late desk 4m away from her do precisely nothing. He knew she was there and he was going to make her wait. When he called her over he had to go and get her paperwork because he hadn’t prepared for the meeting. He asked her why she hadn’t signed on, Marianne told him, he refused to believe that any one of his colleagues could make a mistake.

Two weeks later Marianne gets the letter, rings up for a bank balance and finds she’s £150 overdrawn.

The manager was instantly helpful, typing in some kind of appeal and giving Marianne the paperwork for an emergency loan. Marianne had to go to an ATM to get a printed statement to return to the Job Centre so that she could get the loan processed ASAP. A friend met her as she was rushing to the nearest ATM, asked her what the problem was and offered to lend her the money there and then. Marianne tried to ring the Job Centre to thank the manager and let her know what was happening, but got no reply.

Now, Marianne has to find £300. £210 will pay off the overdraft plus the interest, the rest will be eeked out for just over two weeks. She has no idea how she will find the money to repay her friend but it’s better to owe her the money than the Council. The person who made the decision to sanction her has done their job and I wonder if they even remember her name. Why would they?

People who are unemployed and rely on state benefits have to behave in particular ways in order to get that money. Get in, do exactly – exactly – as you’re told, be optimistic, don’t talk about any problems, comply, get out. If you need special support you have to play up every little element that might work in your favour. Hunger is your fault. Your hungry children are your fault. Having to find an extra £14 a week because you have a spare bedroom but there are no 1 bedroom homes to move into, is your fault, it is you who will be evicted. You may have to cry. If you’re not already, you may have to appear utterly helpless. You will have to demonstrate how vulnerable you are.

Never, ever even appear angry with anyone in power. You have to create a character that mollifies and soothes the people who have almost total power over your life, from where you may be physically at any given time to what you eat and how cold you become.

It’s very easy to become this character.

“This is how people on out-of-work benefits actually feel”

I really like this simple diagram. Supporting a person to discover more about who we truly are and to be more content with who that is, leads to us to be more open to new events, suggestions, experiences. Have you noticed how closed off and defensive so many unemployed people can be? There are a number of excellent reasons for this, and one of them is a defence against being swallowed up and obscured by the shame-filled, grotesquely laden title “Unemployed.” You can resist that title all you like, but you know that your status changed with your family, friends, acquaintances, bank, mortgage lender or landlord, anyone you have a standing order or direct debt with, your local authority and the Government within about 24 hours. And your sense of who you are changes too, bizarrely, just because you have stopped earning money.

Ruth Patrick’s research in the Guardian informs us directly about the external loci of evaluation, the sense of self for the unemployed people she interviewed.

“The voices of, and experiences of, those directly affected by the swath of welfare changes being introduced this month need to be placed centre stage. As part of ongoing research, I have tracked a small group of out-of-work benefit claimants over time, exploring their experiences. Talking to disability benefit claimants, young jobseekers and single parents between 2011 and 2013, it is striking how many have begun to internalise and tacitly accept a discourse that pits hard-working “strivers” against “shirkers”, undermining and demoralising those relying on benefits for all or most of their income.

Benefit claimants I spoke to have described themselves as “scrounging” off the state, explaining that claiming benefits felt like “begging”, and feeling ashamed of their reliance on welfare. Isobella reflected on her experiences of having her [sickness benefit] employment support allowance time limited: “I’m off to the scrapheap. The government don’t seem to realise that this isn’t a lifestyle choice for me and there doesn’t seem to be that recognition that people who are on benefits [are] on them because they need to be, or because of their circumstances. So you do feel a bit washed up, sponging off society. Even though for years and years I’ve paid in and worked and have been a good girl and done what I was told to do. And now it’s all blown back in my face.”

My research suggests that government policies to get people off benefits and into work are based on an incorrect analysis of the problem they are seeking to solve. Most out-of-work benefit claimants do want to work, where this is a realistic aspiration, and are stopped not by laziness or an absent work ethic but by structural barriers such as the absence of jobs, lack of appropriate support and perverse barriers within the benefit system such as not being able to attend full-time training courses.

Many of my participants expressed frustrations that they wanted to do courses, say in bricklaying, that were only available full-time. So instead they are pushed onto basic skills / IT courses that aren’t appropriate.

All too often, government welfare-to-work programmes fail to provide any meaningful support and jobcentre staff give mixed messages such as advising claimants not to return to work as their high rent levels in supported housing made this unaffordable. Sophie, a single parent, desperate to work, recounted her experience of attending a jobcentre appointment: “I said ‘if I go back to work whether it be 16 hours or full time I’m sure I’ll be able to afford it’. And she [the jobcentre adviser] replied, ‘aw well we don’t think you’re ready.'”

Defending his policies, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith argues that those in the welfare system should be “on a journey. It should be taking people somewhere, helping them move from dependence to independence.” The government is certainly taking benefit claimants on a journey, but the most likely destination seems to be increased poverty and more stigmatisation, rather than the promised “independence”. If the government really wants to help benefit claimants they need to tear up their current policies and start again by listening to those people with direct experience of struggling to manage on out-of-work benefits.”

• Names have been changed

What Would You Do With £34m?


What would you do with £34m?

You could give around £425,000 to each benefit claimant.

You could use it to help pay off this much-vaunted deficit (the only deficit we’ve ever been this excited about.)

Think how £34m could be used to support projects like The Maytree which offers respite for people who are suicidal, or Magic Breakfast who give thousands of children breakfasts every day. In British schools. Or the Trussel Trust, who give food parcels to people who cannot afford to buy any, and who have recently spoken out about the growing number of Job Centres who are refusing to refer ‘customers’ to them. This coincides the quiet dropping of the requirement for Job Centre staff to record the reason for a food bank referral and to provide claimants with vouchers — meaning that food banks cannot assess need at the other end. Conveniently enough, this also reduces the amount of embarrassing statistical data in circulation on food banks.

Meanwhile, back in the world of counselling, we hear that the BACP has been seeking a Royal Charter as part of its obsession with status that has been going on for years.

A lively debate on the matter is on-going over at LinkedIn while a bell tolls and tumbleweed blows through the BACP’s attempt at social media.

Universal Credit is not a bad idea in principal. It aims to simplify a confoundingly complex system and to bring people who live week to week into the ‘normal’ world of monthly budgeting. But it ignores the intricacy of individual lives, where waiting 3 weeks for a payment means starvation just because it does. It would be great if everyone could be wonderfully organised and on top of everything all the time, but on a budget of £200 a month life is not simple. Where it has gone wrong is putting ideology ahead of what’s happening in the real world of IT contracts, (employed, well paid) human error and (below poverty line) human lives.

Seeking professional status for counsellors is not a bad idea in principal. It aimed to up all our games, help weed out poor practice and offer clients a standardised complaints process. But it ignores the cost, literal and in terms of homogenisation of the people who are allowed to become a counsellor. For me, the problems with being a professional are summed up by Googling images of ‘professional’: all those young, slim people in suits, arms folded, meaning business.

It would be helpful if the BACP spent somewhat less than £34m on helping counsellors make a living from our own businesses, without seeing human beings as ‘opportunities for counsellors.’ Instead, it is seeking prestige and pre-eminence, presumably on the understanding that a Harley Street practice does better work than a counsellor volunteering in a community where a majority of people are out of work. Like our current DWP, the BACP has put ideology ahead of reality.

Income, Honesty, Altruism, Empathy

This piece of research demonstrates that the more affluent a person becomes – or even feels – the more likely they are to break the law, become less honest in interactions, and cheat 4 times as much as a person at the other end of the income scale just to win meaningless credits.

When richer people are made to feel poorer they become more altruistic. 

Why is this important for counselling?
Because it costs so much to train and to function as a counsellor the profession is increasingly limited to people who are affluent. Training addresses our individual psychology – as long as personal counselling is part of our training – but it ignores our foundations as individuals who belong to part of a group. This in itself is a trait of affluent people; they tend to perceive themselves as individuals, not part of a group. Counselling has long been focused on the client as an individual, ignoring their place or lack of it in a community and this may well be a reflection of the affluence of people who train as counsellors.

I trained and work with a number of affluent people, the majority of whom have been thoughtful and empathic, but that’s not the point. The point is that research demonstrates that the richer a person is the more likely they are to treat people with contempt. It also demonstrates that empathy decreases with affluence.

This doesn’t mean that people who are poor are more loving and caring, but that the richer we become the less we need to rely on anyone. We don’t need to build relationships, be attuned to friends, relatives and neighbours, or bother with reciprocity. We don’t need to be alert to the subtle signals of distress or relaxation from people in our communities because our communities are controlled and much less diverse that the communities of our poorer neighbours.

Counselling is research led, right? Why then is this basic research not brought simply and clearly to our training when it is central to our development as counsellors? How would it be for our tutors to say, “If you can afford this course you are going to have to work much harder to develop your empathy and we all have to be very alert to the ways in which power will play out between you and the people you are going to practice on during your training”?