In July 2009 there were 22,000 people who had been unemployed for more than 2 years. The latest numbers (July 2013) show that there are now 206,000 people who are long-term unemployed. It is hard to imagine that this increase was caused by a nationwide outbreak of laziness, poor CVs and bad attitudes, but that appears to be the Government’s diagnosis.
Workhouse were deliberately unpleasant to give the public confidence that their inmates were not simply lazy.
Examples of the harsh and arbitrary rules of the workhouse. To give the public confidence that no-one would choose a life in the workhouse, dependant on charity or state, the experience was made deliberately unpleasant.
The Chancellor’s announcement of forced work for the long-term unemployed in order to qualify for benefits is premised on the popular idea, refuted by all the available evidence, that the long term unemployment is caused by people being lazy.
I won’t go into the evidence again – the second section of the report “The lies we tell ourselves” is a good place to look if you are interested. Long term unemployment peaked in 1994 and 2012, with levels almost 10 times higher than the normal levels that preceded them. Ask yourself the question: which better explains these peaks – more laziness or fewer jobs following a recession?
Iain Duncan-Smith’s statement during his speech at the Conservative Party Conference that 15,000 people had come off benefits after being threatened with the Total Benefit Cap invites you to draw the same conclusion – make claimants lives harder and they will find work. This statement is eminently misleading as, looking at previous year’s data, it becomes clear that a similar number of claimants came off benefits over the same period. A turnover of 15,000 people in a system that deals with tens of millions of claimants is in reality hardly surprising. When the minister stated directly that the policy was working the National Statistician rapped his knuckles as did ten Churches (http://jpit.uk/truth-about-poverty-please/).
The idea that the poor are lazy, that giving people enough to live encourages laziness, and that making the lives of the poorest more unpleasant will be sufficient to get them work, is extremely old – it is at the heart of the Elizabethan poor law and its early Victorian replacement. The idea formed a key justification for workhouses – where people were forced to work in order to receive enough to live, where making people’s lives unpleasant was a deliberate motivational tactic. In essence what I fear might today be called “tough love”.
Let us be clear the policy being proposed has been tested in various forms all round the world and has failed.http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130128102031/http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd5/report_abstracts/rr_abstracts/rra_533.asp It is possible to reduce the number of people receiving benefits by making them harder and harder to claim. Increasing the stigma can also have the same effect. What such additional requirements and punishments do not do is get people into work. The British trial of forced work published last year makes that very clear.https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/222938/early_impacts_mwa.pdf
Work is important. It can provide dignity, it can provide self-worth and importantly it should provide sufficient income to have a decent standard of living which is why the Churches are committed to the Living Wage. Work can also be demeaning, degrading and exploitative.
Work in the wrong circumstances can diminish people’s dignity and self-worth. Forced work in return for benefits – around a third of the Minimum Wage – is unlikely to be uplifting. Indeed will anyone be able to tell the difference between cleaning graffiti as a punishment for a criminal conviction and cleaning graffitti as result of long term unemployment?
Voluntary work and work experience may indeed help people to gain self confidence and self worth. The evidence tells us that forced work extracted by workfare programmes does not. The reason for this is simple – the underlying belief that drives these programmes is wrong. Wesley was right when in 1752 “So wickedly, devilishly false is that common objection, ‘They are poor, only because they are idle’” In his day this popular and vote-winning belief led to the creation of workhouses – today this belief is just as popular, just as vote winning and most importantly just as wrong.