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Social Impact Bonds: Selling Off the Public Good in the Era of Neoliberalism

Advocates of social impact bonds disregard structural causes of social problems, privatizing both services and social ills.

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We are currently living at a time in history when industrial elites and CEOs are hailed as cultural heroes who have the ability to cure society’s ills. The popularity of Donald Trump’s current run for the Republican presidential nomination and the History Channel’s miniseries, “The Men Who Built America,” are recent examples of this fixation, favoring a type of democracy that allows for market fundamentalism as a way for the United States to relieve all its needs and problems.

Visit the Rockefeller Foundation’s website and you will notice the promotion of a new investment opportunity called social impact bonds (SIBs) (also known as “pay for success” or “social innovation financing”), which, according to Lynn Stuart Parramore’s critique of such schemes, are currently being hyped by proponents “as an ‘innovative’ way of linking private investors, nonprofits and government to deliver social services with demonstrable outcomes” (Parramore, 2014, p. 1).

Social impact bonds are not really true bonds, but rather “pay out in relation to a set of agreed upon metrics that are established when creating the fund” (Kaye, 2013, p. 3). Under this model, private investors provide funding in the form of a bond to a service provider who agrees to deliver services to a targeted population. By providing the initial funding, the investor agrees to take on the financial risk that is usually taken on by the government agency. An intermediary organization oversees the development, implementation and assessment of the program. If the program is deemed a success, as defined in accordance to predetermined outcomes or benchmarks, the government agency reimburses the investor (Tran, 2014).

In theory, the government agency is able to pay the investors with savings that are incurred through success of the program. For example, if a program that is designed to reduce recidivism rates is successful, then the money saved in not paying for a prison stay is passed on to the investor. As Kerwin Kaye states, “At a time when the state has difficulty funding even those projects which already have an established record in reducing costs, social impact bonds present themselves as a risk-free way to generate additional revenue streams in order to achieve social goals” (Kaye, 2013, p. 3).

Within this language of using the free market to cure social ills lies an attempt to depoliticize the real causes of our social problems.

Proponents of such models endorse the idea that the government is not equipped to fix complex social problems such as homelessness, juvenile delinquency and chronic unemployment, and that existing social services do little to remedy underlying causes of such issues. They state that these social problems impose huge costs to governments and taxpayers, and that using social impact bonds is an innovative way of “harnessing private capital to achieve measurable gains on some of the most persistent social ills” (Pettus, 2013). The idea is that measurable gains will be made because under the current system of “non-competition” social service agencies are not innovated. By tying payment to success, agencies will compete, thus, ideally, stimulating innovation (Collins, 2011). A competitive environment “theoretically” will lead to having “better value for the money and more efficient service-provisions” (Collins, 2011, p. 19). Within this framework, state agencies are viewed as being incapable of being innovated because of their “bureaucratic and ‘risk-adverse’ nature, promoting instead the idea that SIBs will allow ‘social entrepreneurs’ to gain access to the capital they need to put their ideas into action” (Kaye, 2013, p. 5).

Within this language of using the free market to cure social ills lies an attempt to depoliticize the real causes of our social problems, which include massive inequality, white supremacy, patriarchy, class warfare and, more importantly, our collective denial of these forces. Instead, social impact bonds structure social service delivery by reducing social problems into particular characteristics that can be fixed through market forces. These characteristics are seen as failures on the part of the individual, and remove any suggestion of how social forces might have any negative impact.

For example, a lot of juvenile delinquency programs focus on enrolling youth into job readiness programs, but little work is done to address social issues that stand in the way of such individuals finding and/or maintaining employment, such as housing discrimination, affordable day care and fear of employers hiring a youth with a criminal record. Under social impact bonds outcome arrangements, graduation from a job readiness program would be deemed a success even though very little was achieved from the individual’s perspective.

Also, particular populations like young males of color or teenage mothers share many of the characteristics that are deemed to be “fixable.” So instead of asking why these particular populations are being so affected by so-called social problems, these individuals are treated as commodities that need to be “fixed” in order to function in a society. These types of programming reduce everything to costs and insert the neutral logic of a cost-benefit analysis, which is divorced from any connection to social justice, and thus contributes to structural racism and patriarchy.

Taken to the extreme, this “[c]ommodification presumes the existence of property rights over processes, things, and social relations, that a price can be put on them, and that they can be traded subject to legal contract” (Harvey, 2005, p.165). Once viewed as commodities, monetary values are placed on individuals going through the programs solely in relation to state cost. In this relationship, cost only refers to the direct costs undertaken by the state without any regard to the values or experiences held by the participants themselves (Kaye, 2013). These populations can become easily disposable and adsorbed within the market under the neoliberal model of a punishing state if deemed to be a failure through a preconceived metric system and audit culture.

Social impact bonds are a natural step in the progress of completely removing public oversight of the social contract.

Social service delivery of this variety further normalizes the surveillance state and subordinates democracy to the dictates of neoliberal capital. The social service agency is no longer accountable to its clients or to the government agency – it is only accountable to shareholders. This is a crucial step in further removing anything public from the social contract. David Harvey comments that with the withdrawal of the government from most things social, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have stepped in, causing a lot of social service delivery to become “elitists, unaccountable, and by definition distant from those they seek to protect, or help no matter how well-meaning they may be” and “[t]hat they typically control their clientele rather than represent it” (Harvey, 2006, p. 52).

Because of this, social program delivery begins to deploy increasingly more intrusive surveillance practices on their clients based upon any financial success in lowering costs, and/or various sorts of abusive practices and techniques that could be legitimated through “economic logic” if these techniques proved to be effective (Kaye, 2013). For instance, social service agencies might find it more economically efficient to report their clients to the authorities for any minor violations rather than trying to work with them. Also, social service agencies might try to exclude certain members of the population from their services by claiming that they are too high risk when in fact it is these individuals that need the services the most.

Social impact bonds are also a natural step in the progress of completely removing public oversight of the social contract. John Clarke and Janet Newman describe that, “[w]hile the state has withdrawn in some ways, its powers and apparatuses have been extended in others – transferring responsibilities but simultaneously creating the capabilities of surveillance and enforcement to ensure that such responsibilities are being fulfilled” (Clarke & Newman, 1997, p. 126). Social impact bonds are an attempt to remove this last remaining monitoring function of the state. Third-party evaluations will be used to determine success and pay out. The state is left with the only function of paying the bill.

This fact is not so hidden in the language surrounding the bonds. Pro-market rhetoric is used, such as stating that social impact bonds’ “design is that each party involved gets to do what it does best. Private players can innovate, while government can bring the project to scale and sustain it over time” (Dimon, 2014). This statement reflects an ideology that views private objectives over social good. The state is reduced to just supplying public goods to private interests. Viewed within this context, social impact bonds are just a natural objective within a neoliberal ideology that entails the “selling off” of public goods to the private sector, where consumption leads to citizenship, and the market serves as a model for all social relations (Henry Giroux in an interview by Nevradakis, 2014, p.1).

The Peterborough Prison in the United Kingdom is credited with being the first experiment with social impact bonds. In September 2010, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice used a financial intermediary, Social Finance, to issue a social impact bond to fund public services at Peterborough. Social Finance is a London-based organization that was created in 2007 with the aim of developing “an effective social investment market in the UK. The organization provides access to capital and advice to investors and social sector entities interested in delivering significant social impact” (Disley, Rubin, Scraggs, Burrows, & Culley, 2011, p. 2). Over 5 million pounds ($7.7 million) from private individuals and charities were collected by Social Finance to invest in the Peterborough program.

The more recidivism drops, the more taxpayers would have to pay Goldman Sachs.

The Ministry of Justice appointed an independent assessor from QinetiQ, which is a global institute based in the United Kingdom that specializes in defense, security and aerospace, and the University of Leicester to perform data analysis to determine whether offenders that received interventions upon release from Peterborough are reconvicted less often than similar offenders from other prisons who do not have access to the social-impact-bond-funded programs. The Ministry of Justice’s rationale for using social impact bonds is that “[i]f members of the Peterborough cohort are reconvicted less than offenders in the comparison group in the year following their release from prison, then the SIB will have entailed benefits for the Ministry of Justice and wider society, in the form of improved outcomes for the offenders and for their communities, which experience less crime” (Disley, Rubin, Scraggs, Burrows, & Culley, 2011, p. 3). In addition to these benefits, the government hopes that it “will have saved money through reduced costs of policing, court cases, prison places, and so on” (Disley, Rubin, Scraggs, Burrows, & Culley, 2011, p. 3).

If the reconviction rate is reduced by 10 percent for each cohort compared to the comparison group, then the Ministry of Justice will pay a return to the investors through the Big Lottery Fund, which is set up by the UK government to pay out grants to private organizations in order to improve their communities (Disley, Rubin, Scraggs, Burrows, & Culley, 2011, p. 3). According to official figures released in August 2014, the Peterborough experiment had a 8.4 percent lower reconviction rate compared to a matched national control group (142 reconviction events per 100 offenders in Peterborough’s cohort 1 compared to 155 reconviction events per 100 offenders nationally), which is short of its 10 percent decrease rate (Ministry of Justice, 2014), which is insufficient to trigger a payment to investors for the first cohort.

Despite little quantitative data to support expanding social impact bonds, the United States has ambitions to bring such a model across the pond. For instance, President Obama included $100 million in the 2012 budget for federal partnerships to launch social impact bonds (Roman & Stoff, 2013), and requested $300 million in the 2015 budget to enable even more social impact bond arrangements (Deprez, 2014). The Bloomberg Foundation reports that there are currently “a dozen states and municipalities assembling deals, including Republican-led Ohio and Democratic-controlled Colorado” and that “the market will grow to $500 million by the end of the next year” (Deprez, 2014).

New York City launched its own experiment at Rikers Island prison in 2012, funded through a bond with the Bloomberg Foundation and Goldman Sachs for $10 million. “New York City Mayor Bloomberg was so enthusiastic about the potential of these new financial instruments as a tool of social policy that he directed his personal philanthropic foundation to put $7.2 million as a guarantee for the first of these bonds” (Kaye, 2013, p. 2). With this bond, the city developed a program designed to prepare male prisoners to return to the community by teaching them “skills they need … to succeed, and stay out of jail” (Roman & Stoff, 2013). An independent research firm, MDRC, will manage the intervention, and the Vera Institute will be responsible for the evaluation process. Success of the program is determined by a reduction of reoffending by the released individuals. Simply put, if the program succeeds, the giant bank Goldman Sachs will profit. The more recidivism drops, the more taxpayers would have to pay Goldman Sachs. However, if recidivism doesn’t decrease significantly, then Goldman Sachs would lose its investment (Parramore, 2014).

In August 2015, this program came to an abrupt end after a preliminary report that was published in June “showed the program not only was missing its recidivism target, it had no impact on the rate altogether. Goldman Sachs moved swiftly and took a contact option to cancel the program one year early,” (Farmer, 2015) essentially bringing the first social impact bond program in the United States to an end as a failed venture. It was also reported that even if the program was a success “high transaction costs” that were not covered by the Goldman Sachs loan causing “the city’s greatest potential for cost savings would have amounted to less than half of a percent of the $1 billion it costs annually to run the jail” (Farmer, 2015), which is far less savings than first expected. Predictably, this failure is not deterring governments who are attracted to these types of programs, and representatives from the independent research firm MDRC do not look at the Rikers Island experiment as a failure, but see it as a lesson in knowing what doesn’t work. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs maintains, “its three other social impact bond investments had shown ‘encouraging progress'” (Farmer, 2015).

Goldman Sachs seems to be well positioned to profit off people’s misfortune and misery.

To date, one of the most ambitious social impact bond ventures is currently happening in Massachusetts, which “recently announced a $27 million seven year ‘social impact bound’ aimed at reducing the number of at-risk former inmates who go back to prison or jail” (Field, 2014). The particulars for this bond include a grant of $11.7 million from the US Department of Labor. Also, in 2012, the Massachusetts Legislature authorized the secretary of administration and finance to enter into pay for success contracts, “with up to $50 million backed by the commonwealth’s full faith credit” (Burton, 2014). In addition, Goldman Sachs, with various other foundations, will provide $18 million in up-front funding to the service delivery program, Roca, which will defer $3.26 million in charges (Butler, 2014). Roca will provide services to “at-risk young men in the Boston, Chelsea, and Springfield areas who are in the probation system or exiting the juvenile justice system” (Field, 2014).

Roca plans to employ a “four year model, which includes two years of intensive engagement and two years of followup [sic]” and is “based on the idea that young people re-engaged through positive and intensive relationships can acquire the life skills, education and employment they need to stay out of prison and move toward economic independence” (Butler, 2014). “Massachusetts will make payments for success if a third-party evaluator determines that Roca’s program has decreased the number of days participating young men spend in prison, improved their job readiness, and increased their employment. The specific target is a 40 percent decrease in days of incarceration. At higher levels of success, funders can get a small percentage return” (Field, 2014).

At any rate, investors are banking on huge payouts. It is reported that Goldman Sachs hopes to make a profit of $2.1 million on its investment if MDRC can prove that recidivism has been reduced by 20 percent at Rikers Island (Petrella, 2012). Also, the Bloomberg Foundation reports that “[e]ach participant Roca keeps out of jail for a year saves Massachusetts $12,400” and “[i]f it can close a 300-person facility and keep from expanding jail space, it could save $47,500 a year” (Deprez, 2014). Hidden in what the foundation is saying is that these savings represent a potential return on investments from the public fund. These savings would not be passed onto the taxpayer or into expanding services that are truly needed, but rather redistributed to a select few. If a program that is funded through a social impact bond is deemed successful, “the taxpayer, through the government, is forced not only to pay back the loan, but to pay for profits of the investor” (Parramore, 2014, p. 2). Through this exchange, companies like Goldman Sachs profit at the expense of the public good.

What makes the Massachusetts case so interesting is that former Gov. Deval Patrick, whose administration backed social impact bonds, is taking a position with Bain Capital to head up a new investment platform that is focusing on “social impact.” An initial report shows that Bain Capital is planning on investing in a “company that operates health clinics in low-income areas, or one that delivers nutritious meals to public schools” (Primack, 2015). Patrick’s entrance into the private investment field, which he helped to create through the Massachusetts Executive Office for Administration and Finance while he was governor, shows that in the current neoliberal corporate environment there “is no longer the so-called revolving door between the corporation and the state but rather the integrated entry to the world of power” (Harrod, 2013, p. 21).

The irony is not lost that such investment schemes that try to portray market forces as being altruistic and reducing government’s burden for the caring of vulnerable populations are actually part of the problems they claim they aim to fix. Pauline Lipman speaks to this paradox when she points out how it is the corporate sector, responsible for deindustrialization and wage cuts, that is now in a position to be the benefactor (2001, p. 106).

Being deemed as too risky can lead to an individual being labeled disposable and not deserving of help.

Lynn Stuart Parramore notes, “If big companies like Goldman Sachs paid their fair share of taxes in the first place, the governments would have more money for social programs and wouldn’t have to turn to private financing” (Parramore, 2014). Social impact bonds are currently being viewed as an appropriate funding mechanism because of a predominant neoliberal ideology that allows for the creation of new markets through wholesale disinvestment from the state, along with deregulation. As Parramore concludes, “Instead of a reasonably funded state, you have a state unable to meet the basic needs of its citizens – and one that ironically is forced to turn to the very people who have been robbing and pillaging the citizens to throw them a rope. Then the rest of us are supposed to be grateful to them” (Parramore, 2014, p. 4).

Goldman Sachs appears to be hedging its bets by jumping into the social impact bond experiment. It is also one of 36 major private prison investors that own over a million shares in the prison industrial complex corporations Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group (Million Shares Club, 2014). These types of investments are often looked at as being very attractive because they are generally understood as being recession-proof. With its eagerness to enter social impact bond ventures, Goldman Sachs is playing both sides. It is gambling that, as Kay Whitlock points out, just as “there are enormous profits to be made through mass incarceration, there are also massive profits to be made from the growth of eventual ‘decarceration.’ It’s a neat trick to control both the supply and demand aspects of the prison/post prison schema” (Whitlock, 2014, p. 8). In short, Goldman Sachs seems to be well positioned to profit off people’s misfortune and misery.

There is also a deep concern about the effectiveness of evaluating success and translating it into a monetary return. Wall Street has a long history of devising complicated formulas and schemes to measure return on investments. Supporters of pay for success models applaud the fact that “[s]ophisticated financial modeling and vast improvements in how the impacts of social services are measured, monitored and evaluated have enabled us to monetize the values of doing the right thing” (Diman, 2014).

In these current times of dominant neoliberal agenda-setting, the concept of raising taxes to pay for social services is not an attractive option. Within this context, social impact bonds are positioned to appear to be a “common-sense” option to fill in the gaps left by a hollowed-out state where we are experiencing a crumbling infrastructure, unprecedented income inequality, the dismantling of safety nets and an inability to respond to climate change and public health scares adequately. What is at risk is the further eroding of the public good for private gain. In an interview given to Camilla Croso in Truthout, Henry Giroux points out, “[T]here is an enormous effort on the part of the right, all over the globe, to privatize these public spheres and to turn them into risk-free investments for accumulating capital and profits for the relatively few” (Henry Giroux quoted in an interview by Croso, 2014, p. 1).

Social impact bonds are effective tools in selling off the public sphere. Using social impact bonds places costs on individuals and reduces them into financial categories as “risk-free” or “risky” investments, and as having no potential beyond what they represent in dollars and cents. Being deemed as too risky can lead to an individual being labeled disposable and not deserving of help. Also, as John Clarke and Janet Newman have pointed out, “being goal-driven tends to mean a focus on short term goals since these are the ones against which outputs and performances are measured” (Clarke & Newman, 1997, p. 147). Social impact bonds are so goal-driven that “[p]erformance becomes less about content and achievement and more about simply making the numbers” (Means, 2013, p. 128). This environment allows for conditions within the programs to matter only as long as costs are reduced. One needs only to look at the horrible conditions and lack of services that are provided within “privatized” prisons to see this emphasis on profit outranking humanity.

Lynn Stuart Parramore distinctly states what is needed: “[I]f we really want to address a problem as big as young men in prison, we need to focus on underlying structural issues. And that requires large-scale investment and a tax code in which everybody, including Goldman Sachs, pay their fair share” (Parramore, 2014, p.3). These types of solutions require collective resistance to the rhetoric of “there is no answer” (TINA). The reality is that instead of marketing the perceived merits of social impact bonds, we should focus on addressing some of the underlying causes of mass incarceration by promoting appropriate funding of public schooling and elimination of high-stakes standardized testing to stem the flow of the school-to-prison pipeline; ending the failed war on drugs; increasing the minimum wage to a livable wage; and making higher education affordable without saddling our youth with large amounts of debt. In order for this to become a reality, we must hold politicians and corporations accountable in paying their fair share of taxes. We must move toward a counter-hegemonic approach that situates these current programs of disposability as a human rights issue – rather than seeing every societal problem as fodder for profit.

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