Stage 3 - The policing of social benefits: punishing poverty

News & Analysis
punishing poverty

Picture: XoMEoX CC BY 2.0


1. Definitions of ‘fraud’ lack transparency and are often deceptive. States often define ‘fraud’ in vague and overbroad terms, which creates a seemingly compelling catch-all justification for denying or terminating benefits. The general public will often support this political narrative unless they have a greater understanding of the realities facing social benefit claimants and their experience navigating confusing and complex social benefits systems. Overbroad uses of ‘fraud’ has an othering effect towards social benefits claimants and recipients, which may be aided by media portrayals.  


Encouraged by corporate interests, governments are investing in benefit fraud detection technology based on analysing large data sets and algorithmic prediction; however, intentional, wrongful deception by social benefits claimants and recipients is generally extremely rare. The type and incidence of fraud reported by states needs to be viewed sceptically and analysed. For example, the system may declare situations ‘fraud’ and remove the benefits people depend on, even when it is the system itself that incorrectly processed a file, failed to adequately inform someone of a particular deadline, or failed to request information—as opposed to any action or inaction by a benefits claimant. In some instances, situations will also be labelled fraud when people are unable to produce just one document out of many, miss a single meeting with a caseworker, or fail to meet one of many onerous conditions. There is a need to investigate what is defined as fraudulent, how these definitions are overbroad, and how these definitions are designed to exclude people. 


2. Purported attempts by government to identify ‘fraud’ are too often efforts to more closely monitor and exclude particular communities. The state often invokes ‘fraud’ to increase the number and scope of surveillance strategies, which allows for the systematic expansion of intrusive approaches aimed at punishing, controlling, and stigmatizing particular groups, rather than what would best assist people who are vulnerable. The insidious nature of this approach is revealed by the fact that resources spent investigating alleged or potential social benefits fraud often exceed the amount that states would save by denying or terminating benefits to people who are deemed not in need of government assistance. The eligibility schemes created by governments that define a person in need of assistance are often flawed and artificial. They often exclude people who are in need of government assistance to meet their basic needs and enjoy their socio-economic rights, including access to adequate food, adequate housing, health, and social security.

The investigation of fraud increases surveillance and exclusion of particular groups and is too often motivated by negative perceptions and impermissible suspicions towards and within such groups.


3. The meagre amount of benefits provided is too often grossly insufficient for people to support themselves and their families, and so it actually encourages ‘fraud’. Social benefits systems, between the onerous conditions people are required to comply with and the inadequate levels of benefits, too often make it impossible for people to support themselves or their families unless they commit what the government defines as ‘fraud’. The state disincentives people from reporting additional income they require to supplement their benefits and meet their basic needs.


Furthermore, because of the stress and fear caused by pervasive surveillance, people are spurred to resist by failing to fully disclose all their intimate, personal details, or fully cooperate with assessments, screenings, and inspections. As a result, social benefits systems may actively contribute or push people toward evasive behaviour characterised as ‘fraudulent’, when in fact they are survival strategies.


We should challenge:

  • Overbroad definitions of ‘fraud’ that capture conduct by people that is not a wilful and intentional effort to wrongfully obtain resources that people do not believe they require to allow themselves or their families to equally and fully participate in, advance, and benefit from society.
  • The exploitation of the concept of ‘fraud’ as a cover for the minimisation and reduction of social benefits expenditure. 
  • The use of ‘fraud’ investigations as an excuse to justify greater, discriminatory surveillance of benefits claimants.


We should support:

  • A culture and systems that affirm that people have equal dignity and worth regardless of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, immigration status, and perceived mental or physical difference.
  • Providing an amount of support that allows people and their families to equally and fully participate in, advance, and benefit from society in accordance with the principles of non-discrimination and progressive realisation of peoples’ economic, cultural, and social rights.


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