Liberals and conservatives have traditionally taken different approaches when confronted with rising unemployment. Liberals have usually adopted a ‘big state’ solution, calling for increased public expenditure, the creation of government-funded jobs programmes, and the acceptance that spending on benefits will rise as unemployment does. Conservatives have generally taken the opposite tack, demanding reductions in government spending, attempting to squeeze welfare budgets to as little as possible and looking to the private sector to create new jobs.
Increasingly, however, liberals and conservatives are converging around a new approach, one which argues for the wielding of the big state not to create jobs or to change society but to coerce the unemployed and to change behaviour of the poor. It is called ‘workfare’ and the latest country to adopt the idea is Britain.
Earlier this month, the government introduced proposals to rip up Britain’s welfare state as it currently exists. Among the many new proposals, all welfare and unemployment recipients will have to seek work, even unpaid volunteer work, or risk losing their payments. Those who are unemployed for more than a year will have be forced to work unpaid on government programmes, such as street cleaning or maintaining parks, for at least four weeks a year, or else lose their benefits entirely. The aim of the proposals, according to Iain Duncan Smith, the minister responsible for work and pensions, is to ‘solve the wider social problems associated with worklessness’ and ensure that ‘work is always the best route out of poverty.’
Workfare is an idea that inevitably originated in the USA, the brainchild of Lawrence Mead, who is now Professor of Politics and Public Policy at New York University. Thirty years ago he argued that the real problem facing the unemployed was not a lack of job opportunities but their own behaviour. The poor and the unemployed, he argued, lacked basic civic virtues, including a sense that they had a moral duty to find solutions to their own problems. Instead, state welfare programmes had created a ‘culture of dependency’ in which people felt entitled to receive benefits without giving anything back. The solution was, in Mead’s words, to ‘enforce values that had broken down’, such as the work ethic or a willingness to obey the law, through an intrusive state bureaucracy that ‘helped and hassled’ people back to work.
Mead became a political guru not just for conservative republicans but for liberal Democrats too. It was Bill Clinton’s administration in the late 1990s that introduced such policies on a nationwide basis. And initially they seemed to be a great success. Millions left welfare, unemployment fell, and incomes rose. Other countries took up the scheme.
A closer look reveals, however, a different picture. One of the first workfare programmes was launched in the US state of Wisconsin in 1997. It is still lauded as one of the great success stories of workfare. In a recent radio debate in which I took part, a supporter of workfare pointed out that in Wisconsin, as a result of its programme, ‘welfare payments were reduced by 90 per cent.’
He is right. But what he failed to point out was that most of those who were forced to give up welfare payments lived in dire poverty and few had proper jobs. In 2005, the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau issued an official assessment of the programme. A huge amount of public money had been poured into the programme - $1.5 billion in the space of seven years. And yet, fewer than one in five of those who had passed through the programme, the report acknowledged, were a year later on incomes above the federal poverty level. Almost all of those who were working were in low-paid, non-unionised, high turnover jobs, most of them temporary.
The British government conducted a study two years ago of workfare schemes across the world. ‘There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work’, it concluded. Workfare, it found ‘is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.’ In other words, in the conditions that most Western nations face now. The report also found that ‘Subsidized job schemes that pay a wage can be more effective in raising employment levels than “work for benefit” programmes.’
Even in a period of economic growth, low unemployment and a willingness to plough billions of taxpayers’ dollars into the scheme, workfare programmes were a disaster. So, at a time of economic slowdown, rising unemployment and savage cuts in public expenditure across the Western world, what hope is there that such schemes might work?
What workfare truly seeks to change are not people’s values but their expectations. It is a policy that makes low paid, non-unionised jobs socially acceptable and declares those who refuse to take such jobs to be ‘immoral’. Its real impact is not in creating jobs or changing the lives of the poor, but in shifting the blame for poverty and unemployment on to the poor and the unemployed themselves.
The real problem we face is not the existence of a mass of ‘workshy’ people bereft of moral values, nor the creation of a culture of dependency. It is failure of the political imagination to build a society with proper jobs and wages, and the disillusionment with the possibilities of real social transformation. We used to think we could change the structures of society for the better. Now we just want to change the behaviour of the poor.