So, George Osborne has launched a new workfare scheme. Yet another one. (Yes I know, It’s not a proper workfare scheme but the kind of workfare-lite project favoured in Britain.) ‘Help to Work’ is the latest in a series of similar government schemes from the Work Programme to the Community Activity Programme to Mandatory Work Activity. Each has been created in response to the failure of the previous scheme. And each scheme in turn has failed. And every time a  workfare scheme has failed, blame is always placed on the unemployed for lacking the social skills, cultural capital, or psychological traits necessary for work. As Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions minister, put it in launching a previous flagship scheme in 2010, the aim is to ‘solve the wider social problems associated with worklessness’. The real problem lies with workfare itself.

Workfare is an idea that originated in the USA, the brainchild of Lawrence Mead, 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 2010 Moral Maze debate in which I took part, (and in which Mead was one of the witnesses), Neil O’Brien, director of the rightwing Policy Exchange think tank, and 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.

A  2008 British government study of workfare schemes across the world concluded that ‘There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work’. 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 now face. 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. This is even more true of Britain’s workfare-lite schemes whose whole rationale appears to be not job creation but blame-shifting and expectations-changing.

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 the 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.


The photo is ‘Unemployment Line’ by darthpickle.


  1. I am currently being forced to attend a “job club” with the Work Program every day. This is because my time with them finishes in december and if I haven’t got a job by then, they don’t get their £15,000 kickback. The stress of this has set off my depression and other health worries, resulting in making it harder for me to look for work. Seemingly there is no limit to the power that they have and no one seems to be able to help me deal with it.

    • I have a solution for you. Get a voluntary job at a charity shop. Go to the charity shop for a week. Then tell the work programme that you have found YOURSELF a voluntary job and if they insist you attend the “job club” then you will be forced to give it up. They will agree to allow you to do the charity shop job. Its the kind of thing they force people into anyway but because you have found it yourself, the charity shop is under no obligation to inform them if you leave. Because you are really attending the charity shop there is no problem if the work programme phone to check. They will only do this once anyway.

      Then, when they have called and confirmed that you are volunteering at the charity shop, just quit. Don’t tell the work programme and they will assume you are still volunteering. This will free you of any obligation to attend their stupid job clubs or courses. You will only have to attend the charity shop for a few days, week at most until the work programme call to check then you are free.

      I did this 6 months ago and now they think I am volunteering and they leave me alone. Whenever they try to get me onto one of their courses I just remind them that I am doing voluntary work and can’t do it. They leave me alone

  2. A4e Sucks

    The Nasty Party’s proposals are all centered on the false belief that there ‘are jobs out there’, so anyone who doesn’t have one deserves to be punished until they do get one. The only time when this might have been justifiable is if there were more than enough jobs to go around, which there aren’t. Their ‘tough approach’ might have made more sense during a period when people could leave a job one day and walk into another one the next (the only time in recent history where I can think of that this happened was the 1960s), but it’s a nonsense during a time when there are far more people out of work than there are jobs available. Remember this, tories- the welfare state is an important part of social stability. If you take that away, then people will have nothing to lose.

  3. AM

    I had to attend an A4e session yesterday, on the Local Labour Market, and the gist of it was that if we send 100 letters to all the cash converters, payday loan shops, mobile phone shops, bars, restaurants, retail outlets, estate agencies in our local area we will get 10 interviews and from that we will get one job. The trainer said profound things like Lambeth has lots of poor people, and people with mental health problems, so these “new and expanding businesses” target these areas and make money . . . but she lives in a 3-bedroom house in Wimbledon (not by her own endeavours) so there aren’t any such places in her local area. I had to swallow down my rage when she said things like “if you earn £35K you are on the poverty line”, as she was unaware that the national average wage is around £26K. We were supposed to go to the computer room and do this target exercise of finding these local businesses but after she spoke for about 45 minutes, she let us go saying we could do the exercise at home . . .
    I actually came out and went straight over to my “advisor” and told him I was deeply unimpressed with this “course”. But, my advisor thinks that people apply for jobs by merely sending their CV around and he is utterly clueless that most job applications take place online, and that the candidate must address and answer every aspect of the person spec minutely to have even the merest sniff of an interview opportunity.

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