Thursday, 17 February 2011

Why Workfare Doesn't Work

American academic Lawrence Mead could easily be a character from a Dickens novel. He appeared on BBC's Newsnight on Tuesday, advocating 'tough love' for unemployed welfare claimants. His emphasis does seem rather more pronounced on the 'tough' part, as there was not much 'love' in evidence in his policy recommendations. Mead was the architect of the 'Workfare' programme in the US, beginning in the 1980s. In the 90s, his policy of removing benefit entitlements from claimants gradually over time was enacted by Bill Clinton's administration. It seemed to work at first: as the US economy boomed, unemployment fell, and neo-liberals liked to think that this was partly due to the more draconian attitude towards welfare claimants.

Since the credit crunch, however, the truth has been revealed. Despite three decades of tough love, US unemployment has soared to 9.8% and stands higher than that in the UK or most of Europe, where welfare systems are vastly more generous and less coercive. In the mythology of right wing libertarians and British Conservatives, the unemployed are simply feckless layabouts, so presumably this rise in US unemployment was due to a sudden epidemic of laziness sweeping the nation, and definitely not anything to do with a recession caused by a financial crisis in turn caused by the greed and misjudgements of hard-working bankers.

I wish Lawrence Mead could meet my mother; they'd probably agree on most things. She's retired now, but was the most hard-working and honest person anyone could possibly have imagined. As an orphaned child in Hong Kong, she laboured night and day for rich families. She married and came to the UK in the 60s, then worked all her adult life, slaving and saving, paying her taxes all the while. When her husband's alcoholism was no longer bearable, she divorced, becoming a single parent. At times, she had to work two or three menial jobs at once, in order to raise me - whilst continuing to pay her taxes and vote Tory - despite all the tabloid jibes about 'feckless' single mothers. She worked as a chamber maid, cleaner and launderette attendant as well as her main job of accounts clerk. She simply didn't believe in taking handouts. Then suddenly, at the age of 55, she was made redundant in a company take-over. She never worked again; not because she didn't want to but simply because no one would offer her a job ever again.

Being Chinese probably didn't help my mother in the job market, but being over 55 must have sealed her fate. She was consigned to the scrapheap by the society she had slaved for. Finally forced to exist on state welfare, she was now condescended to and treated like vermin in the queue for her measly dole cheque, despite the fact that she had paid far more in taxes than she would ever receive in welfare. Now condemned to the ranks of the long-term unemployed and branded a 'scrounger', politicians, tabloid editors and academics like Dr Mead would tut-tut over her assumed indolence and lack of self-respect: I'd like to know if Dr Mead or a tabloid editor ever had to do a second job as a cleaner in order to make ends meet, as a single parent? I suspect not.

My mother is not an unusual case. Most people desperately want to work. This can be proved using simple arithmetic. Unemployment is cyclical, as this graph shows for the UK. The UK unemployment rate is now 7.9%, up from a recent low of 4.6% in 2004. So we know that at least 42% of the unemployed have recently worked. But a closer look at the official figures reveals that only 210,000 people - of the 2.49 million claiming Jobseeker's Allowance - have been out of work for more than two years (as my mother was). So at least 92% of 'dole scroungers' have proved that they actually want to work - inasmuch as anybody really 'wants to work' - by the simple act of having done it. Granted, if you were to win the lottery, your desire to work seven days a week at McDonald's might diminish. Dr Mead is very keen on the moral and spiritual benefits of working for your living. I find it strange, therefore, that he does not advocate taking money away from those idle rich who live off unearned income from investments, so that they too can benefit from the discipline of a hard-working life - but that's an aside.

Still, what about the 8% who have been unemployed for over two years? This does indicate a problem, but it has more to do with chronic medical problems and discrimination than with pure laziness, as my mother's case illustrates. I don't doubt that there are a few genuine scroungers or malingerers out there, some of them criminals, who just want to milk the system for a free ride. That's inevitable, but my experience and the figures suggest that they are a tiny minority. Maybe there is a case for treating some benefit claimants differently; if they have never ever worked or only worked occasionally whilst relying on benefits for years at a time, for example. However, I find it deeply offensive that people who have worked and paid taxes for most of their lives should be labelled as 'scroungers' and treated like scum. That's totally unacceptable: if you have worked and paid into the system, then you are entitled to a bit of help in times of dire need. That's part of our social contract. There is no such thing as a 'benefits culture': there is cyclical unemployment, disabled people and only a tiny proportion of actual freeloaders.

Just to ram the point home, a look around Europe makes it glaringly obvious that coercive welfare systems do not lead to lower unemployment. The Netherlands has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EU, at 4.4% and yet their welfare system is much more generous than ours, with unemployment benefit paid at 70% of your previous salary (capped at 185 Euro per day). Denmark has long had one of the most generous welfare support systems in the world, yet their unemployment rates have historically been well below those of the UK. The Danish rate has shot up to 8.2% due entirely to the recession, but was as low as 3.1% just two years ago. Swedish unemployment was only 1.4% in 1990, at a time when their welfare system was as generous as Denmark's. Since then they started implementing right-wing policies and their unemployment rate is now the same as the UK's, although their welfare system remains much more generous than ours.

All the evidence points the same way: people cannot be coerced into work. Why should this be surprising? Anyone who has ever had to live on unemployment benefits knows that it's nowhere near enough to pay the bills. The unemployed, and even people in low-paid work, have to struggle with a combination of benefits, credit cards, pawnbrokers and charity or savings, if they're lucky. I know this truth from first hand experience as an unemployed graduate in the 90s, when I was absolutely desperate to find a job - preferably one that paid enough to cover my rent, food, clothes, bills and travel costs. I was so desperate I worked for nothing, as a volunteer for the Red Cross, among others - and loved it. In fact, young people are keener than anyone to work: their naive dreams have yet to be shattered and spat on by a soulless capitalist machine which sees them as nothing but fresh meat for grinding - but I digress. Sadly, voluntary work is frowned upon by our government, since if you do too much of it, they cut your benefits! So much for the 'Big Society'.

So, what's the real solution to unemployment, if it isn't the 'stick' of coercion, tough talk and threats? It's the opposite: the 'carrot' of job opportunities, flexible working and not yanking people's benefits away as soon as they do a day's work. The irony is that we need to make our benefits system more generous, not less so, just like those of the Netherlands and Denmark. The Dutch, for example have many more people in part time work than we do, because in the Netherlands, it pays. Iain Duncan Smith does show some signs of understanding this, with his promise to 'make work pay' but he still spouts the rhetoric of coercion. People like him and Lawrence Mead will never know what it's like to be dependent on benefits, so they will never truly understand the solutions.


  1. Kudos to your mom in her unwavering bravado, strength, and hard-work in rising above adversity to be a successful single-parent. I emulate her integrity. I lost my parents at a young age and know what it's like to work hard at supporting myself.

    I wish New York would emulate the Netherlands in being more generous with unemployment benefits and the creation/retention of decent jobs in supporting the residents of this state and our great resources. I do not know why this concept is not coming to fruition and need to do research to find the answers. Mayor Bloomburg (of New York City) and Governor Cuomo (N.Y. State)were on the news again tonight announcing major cuts in education, emergency medical funding (medicaid)welfare, et al, that reduce the quality of life issues for persons other than the privileged.

    I'm thrilled to know that the successful protests of UK Uncut has emigrated to the States to help us get our feet back on the ground to better financial health because we all share the same planet!

    Thank you much for the comprehensive blog and am looking forward to the next insane gibberish!

    Be well.

  2. Thanks Kris. Good luck in your struggle for justice, too! It's great that you now have a US Uncut that can act as a focal point around which people can gather for real justice, rather than that phony corporate-inspired 'Tea Party'.

  3. I've been forced to do workfare and it's utterly soul-destroying. You are actually worse off because of the increased costs of going out to work, and having to work next to someone who is actually being paid for the job causes a lot of anger and resentment.

    If workfare is meant to somehow be an approximation of having a job it's not very effective. Most of the things that you'd expect from a job are missing; a wage, camaraderie, a future to work towards, a sense of community and social inclusion, a positive self-identity..and justice.