13 August 2008

Welfare to work: A false reasoning is driving benefit cuts | Society

James Purnell, who initiated a review of the conditions attached to benefits given to lone parents, unemployed people and disabled claimants.

There is a scene in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine where the film-maker investigates the home life of a six-year-old boy who has shot his Michigan classmate. He discovers that the boy lives with his mother and young siblings, but rarely sees his one parent. To qualify for food stamps and healthcare, mum is on a Welfare to Work programme which forces her out of the house early in the morning to make the 60-mile bus journey to the first of her two jobs. Despite travelling three hours a day to hold down two menial jobs she is unable to make ends meet and is evicted by the landlord. Days before the shooting, she takes her family to live at her brother's house, which is where her young son, unbeknown to her, lays his hands on a gun. How does a government welfare policy that results in a child being brought up by effectively two absent parents benefit the community, asks the local sheriff.

I was reminded of this emotive episode after the work and pensions secretary, James Purnell, ordered a review of the conditions attached to benefits given to lone parents, unemployed people and disabled claimants. The review, which started last week, is being undertaken by Paul Gregg, a Bristol University academic who has specialised in the interaction between benefits and income. The review is in addition to punitive proposals contained in a welfare green paper published last month to make lone parents with children as young as five prepare themselves for work, disabled claimants find a job or face tougher sanctions, and those on jobseeker's allowance for more than two years work for their dole.

A paper accompanying the review cites evidence from abroad that demonstrates how requiring participation in full-time work experience as a condition of receiving benefit, such as the Workfare schemes in the US, Canada and Australia, can get more people into work. The paper, More Support, Higher Expectations, does contain a note of caution about the US model, which despite its success at reducing the numbers on welfare was accompanied by a rise in absolute child poverty. This suggests, says the paper, that "elements of this policy approach - such as time-limiting benefits - would not further our [the UK government's] long-term goals", which are to help people find work and escape poverty.

Critics of the US Workfare scheme say people were prevented from getting, or staying in a job not because they were workshy but because of a variety of problems ranging from demands of childcare, to violent boyfriends and drugs and alcohol. These barriers to employment must be tackled before laying the blame on the individual and forfeiting their right to benefits, they argued.

In the UK, the voluntary sector has been strangely silent over the potentially disastrous consequences of coercing vulnerable people into work. Is this because many charities will be bidding for the contracts to run the new welfare system or because they fear a Tory government would impose even tougher rules? Earlier this year, David Cameron proposed a mandatory, year-long work programme of street cleaning for any jobless welfare claimant who had been signing on for two years. But attempts by politicians to win the crown as the most hardline welfare reformer leads to dangerous posturing at the expense of the most vulnerable in society.

Recent research by Ruth Patrick, a social policy graduate in Leeds suggests that while many disabled people want to work, compulsion and the threat of benefit withdrawal are clumsy tools to achieve this. Focus groups found it was discrimination by employers and poor access to the workplace that prevented disabled people from getting a job. Like the lone parents in the US, this demonstrates how deducting benefits to reduce worklessness is based on a false analysis of the problems preventing people finding work. The government should listen to welfare claimants, instead of using them to score political points.

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