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.