George Osborne’s Help to Work scheme, announced in his keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference, gives three options to the long-term unemployed – work placements, daily job centre visits, or compulsory training. The purpose of this intervention – to eradicate the option of “something for nothing” in the benefits system – appears to be setting up something of a straw man given the large extent of conditionality evident in the benefits system as it stands.
Any doubts that people on unemployment related benefits have to demonstrate an active pursuit of work will be dispelled by a glance at the eligibility criteria for job seeker’s allowance. The effectiveness of addressing long-term worklessness through such schemes is also highly questionable.
Increasing conditions on those claiming benefits, however, is not an invention of the Coalition government – in recent decades it has become something of a consensus in British politics. Blair’s New Deal introduced stronger workfare policies than the previous Conservative government had contemplated, couched in the rhetoric of “rights and responsibilities”.
Osborne’s scheme, then, can be seen as an extension of a long-standing trend in the UK welfare system. It has been, and undoubtedly will continue to be, praised by some who feel their taxes are being squandered on unworthy beneficiaries, and criticised by others who feel the poor already bear enough of a burden. But a deeper examination of what is behind this trend may offer more insight than simply critiquing the dubious accuracy and evidence basis of Osborne’s proposals.
The purpose of welfare systems is to support those who are unable to support themselves. But beliefs vary about why society is organised in such a way that leads to some people succeeding when others do not. There are two common explanations for the existence of poverty and social exclusion – the individual and the structural.
The individual explanation focuses on the shortcomings of the poor and excluded. Moral failings such as laziness and dependency cause poverty, and these may then be passed down through generations, resulting in cultures of poverty. Breaking these cultural cycles, and protecting hard-working citizens from the moral hazard presented by the poor, are prioritised as solutions.
In contrast, the structural explanation is concerned with the broader context. Longstanding inequities in the distribution of resources – be they money, jobs, schools or a host of other things – result in some people being disadvantaged and lacking the opportunity to address this.
Factors such as geographic location may result in disadvantage where, for example, industry moves on and jobs are no longer available. Redistribution of resources, and tackling underlying structural issues which result in disparities in the income distribution, are seen as the most effective solutions.
The individual explanation is evident in Coalition policy and rhetoric. Cameron’s “skivers”, Casey’s “troubled families”, Duncan-Smith’s “addicts” and now Osborne’s benefits claimants who have been getting “something for nothing” reveal a view of the poor as socially and morally deficient, a drain on the resources of the presumably hard-working, untroubled and non-addicted employed. Attachment to the labour market is prioritised, and where this cannot be achieved in the short term, the solution is sought in changing the person, through educational or therapeutic intervention.
What is entirely absent in the debate is the structural explanation. Indeed, redistribution is positioned as something dangerous. It is at best a necessary evil which must be kept to a minimum and conditional on the good behaviour of its recipients, to prevent a further descent into dependency and an over-burdening of the rest of society. This despite the fact that Jil Matherson, the National Statistician, detailed in a lecture recently that as the economy shrinks, unemployment rises - something for which most people would be likely to blame rich bankers, rather than unemployed benefits claimants.
Changes in the kinds of industry predominant in Britain, and a shift from manufacturing and agriculture towards service industries have implications for the location, type and availability of employment. The jobs which Osborne’s workfare aims to prepare people for in many cases simply do not exist.
Implicit in the Help to Work scheme is the idea that paid work will result in a transformation of the life of the worker. In reality, recent research conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that 6.1 million people in the UK are living in poverty in households with at least one person in paid work – compared to 5.1 million living in households in workless poverty. Similarly, more than half of children who are in poverty are living in households in which at least one adult is in paid work.
In light of this, perhaps a fundamental shift towards understanding and acting on the structural causes of unemployment, and compensating those let down by a system beyond their control, is a more appropriate response. It will surely achieve more than punitive measures focused on individual shortcomings.