Friday, July 25, 2008

Punishing the poor

Once more New Labour has announced that its solution to poverty is to threaten to make the poor poorer. They have trotted out the old Daily Mail pleasing line, 'benefits sanctions if you lazy oiks do not do as you are told'. James Purnell's proposals for reform elicit a familiar response; anger from his own backbenches, anguish from Polly Toynbee and full support from the Tories. This is a curious Labour government.

There has been, rightly, a lot of fuss about recent attacks on human rights and civil liberties. However, there has also been an erosion of economic rights, as embodied in the universalist principles of the welfare state, through an increase in conditionality that has generated far less noise. Rights are disappearing and obligations multiplying.

Shuggy, both on his own site and the Drink-soaked Trots, does an excellent job on Labour's forward march to 1834 by attacking the notion that poverty is the result of the moral failings of the poor and opposing the concept of 'workfare'. The comments are well worth reading too. I would like to support his critique by committing further heresies against conventional wisdom.

The first is to question the notion of dependency culture. I always thought that this idea of a demotivated underclass languishing on benefits because that it is all they know, if it bore any relation to reality at all, mistook effect for cause. However, let's take it one step further and ask what is wrong with dependency? Why do we view dependency as being so bad? We are all dependent at different stages of our life; when we are children, when we are old, when we are sick. If people neglect us then, they are called cruel and heartless. A civilised society recognises dependency as a necessary condition in which we will all find ourselves at times and actually supports us through it. Instead, Labour is offering us Victorian parenting, a sound thrashing for our own good.

Secondly, there is a monomania about the only way out of poverty being work. Work may well be a good way out. However, it is also a route in. It depends what you get paid.

Wages depend largely on the position of people in the labour market. Unlike some of his modern followers, Adam Smith was deeply concerned about the dangers of the market depressing workers' income if their market position was weakened. Much of recent government policy has been devoted to doing just that.

Trade unions have been legislated against, employment protection weakened and the 'flexible workforce' promoted. Tax credits may be invaluable to the recipient, but, in reality, they are a state subsidy to employers and encourage low pay. Coercing people into the job market by removing their means of subsistence and getting them to, in effect, work for nothing puts more downward pressure on pay levels.

The way out of poverty is actually to have a secure, adequate income. Flitting between low paid, insecure work and periods of unemployment might look good on the statistics, but is not much use to individuals trapped in the whole dispiriting process.

Thirdly, governments have this wonderful self-confidence that they can shape human behaviour by using an economic stimulus. The problem is that people don't always respond as expected. And often their choices are damaging and anti-social, but make far more sense in the context of their lives than the approved route. For instance, if you take benefits away from someone with a drug addiction because they do not, or cannot, seek treatment what will they do? Rob you, that is what.

Cutting support may make people disappear from the statistics, but not necessarily into employment. They can sink into the black economy, homelessness, prostitution, crime - they become part of an invisible, disenfranchised poor.

And finally, if, as Shuggy suggests, we have necessary and inevitable structural unemployment, wouldn't it be better if the unemployed were actually the ones who want to be? They would be happier and better at it than those who want to work.

Let's be honest about this. Unemployment is a curse. If you want to see the damage it can do, look at the bitter experience of people who lost their jobs when mass unemployment hit under Thatcher. However, low pay, long hours, exploitation, exhaustion and stress are just as much a scourge. To pitch people from one to the other is not progress.

Working in adult education has allowed me to see the fantastic transformation that gaining qualifications and employment can make on individuals. I have also seen the complexity of the problems people need to overcome if they are to make that transformation. They need support, help and real choices, sometimes over a long period of time. The worst thing to do is to is to force them into inappropriate training or work through fear of the benefit officer, accompanied by constant anxiety over the loss of their means of support. An activist welfare policy makes a lot of sense, but not one that punishes the poor for the sin of their poverty and is really designed to cut spending and appeal to the right wing press.

The mainstream left has had to spend much time and energy rescuing itself from the stupidities of the "we are all Hezbollah now" brigade. It also needs to free itself from an authoritarian, centralising and conservative political economy and social policy if it is to be a left worthy of support. In Britain, after Glasgow East, it looks increasingly like this reinvention will take place in opposition. They have only themselves to blame.


Anonymous said...

I am sympathetic to your points; anything which carries an implied threat is hard to take, even if, as is nearly always the case, those doing the threatening claim to be acting in the interests of the threatened.

Yet, what is a government which wants to re-direct public money (that is, money taken from those who have earned it) towards employment, development and education, rather than on unemployment and dereliction? The left have been historically good at defending the rights of the poor, but lacking a realistic plan of how the poor can find a way out of poverty.

We cannot be blinded by sentiment to the reality of the situation of too many families and young people without work or training; to adopt a 'free market' approach to joblessness. Coercion is not pretty, nor is spending twenty years on the dole. If such a policy is to be brought forward I would rather it were by Alan Johnson, say, than David Davis. Sadly, after this week, I think it will be Davis (or someone like him).

M said...

The Welfare State was not designed for welfare dependency; it was designed as a safety net to protect people till they found work again. The problem is where the welfare dependent are disconnected from work, not because there is no work for them to do but because they consider it beneath them, it something that “forriners” can be brought in to do. The pretence that such work is always low paid may be a convenient straw man but the reality is often different; the immigrants imported by employers to work in the factories and other places that were once the preserve of the British working class demonstrate the work ethic that was once a matter of pride for forebears of those who now think “I’m alright Jack, somebody else can look after me”.

I don’t think that the government’s proposals are particularly well thought through, but that isn’t a justification for the abuse of the Welfare State, nor does it justify why a section of society can push responsibility for it’s own sustenance onto the rest (besides if it is acceptable for them to do this, then logically it’s equally acceptable for the rest of society to push it back).

The Plump said...

First MJW

1. The unemployment benefits system was never just a safety net, though it was not intended to deal with long term structural unemployment. It had an economic function in that it enabled the unemployed to remain economically active, thus maintaining demand and acting to counter cyclical downturns. Its second function was to provide universal and unconditional insurance against loss of income. Arguably, both are in all our interests and if some disaster befalls you, I think that you might be pretty grateful and wish that some of the conditions hadn't been added over recent years!

So, if people who have no other means of support are paid benefits, this is not an abuse of the system, however long they claim. It is what it is there for and it is better for us all that it operates like this.

Long term support was always meant to be provided for those who were incapacitated through, for example, illness or old age.

Now to this, "not because there is no work for them to do but because they consider it beneath them"

This is the problem with the way much of the debate is tackled. It is easy to make an assumption like this without empirical grounding.

We have had a labour shortage, but let's look at some of the key reasons why long term unemployed don't take these jobs.

1. The benefits trap (see Shuggy's post) 100% marginal tax rates don't act as much of an incentive.

2. They simply cannot do the jobs because of:

a) age or ill health. Youth unemployment is low, and new migrants are young and fit. I would be totally incapable of many of the jobs available.

b) skills and this is not just education. The big industrial jobs you mention have gone. Look at all the seasonal work in agriculture for example. We simply do not have people with the agricultural skills and knowledge left.

c) exploitation. The unemployed will never get a look in at many of these jobs as gangmasters bring in and contract migrant labour to employers who want cheap labour and to avoid statutory liabilities.

Bear in mind the power relationship in employment. The person who chooses is the employer. This is not a process of self-exclusion in the majority of cases.

Where you have exclusion brought on by long term disadvantage then you have other problems and this brings me on to Larkers point,

We cannot be blinded by sentiment to the reality of the situation of too many families and young people without work or training; to adopt a 'free market' approach to joblessness.

Here I can only write about what I know, adult education. However, I can tell you that there is a world of aspiration out there, mixed with cynicism and realism about what there is for them, together with a lack of trust.

As far as I am concerned 'build it and they will come', but I do not mean just buildings but outreach work, community liaison, long-term, secure funding, flexibility, variety, unlimited qualification aims and patience. Instead what we have is insecure funding, short-term projects, rigid schemes, qualifications limited to NVQ 2, and a disintegrating service.

All this type of coercion will achieve is good headlines in the right wing press. Sometimes, I think that is all they want.

Anonymous said...

Peter –

"All this type of coercion will achieve is good headlines in the right wing press. Sometimes, I think that is all they want."

I believe this also. Yet 'knife crime' (including it's causes) should be tackled even if the Daily Mail says so.

Incidentally, – and you were not to know this – I have spent long times unemployed, and lived in what were once known as 'doss' houses. Unlike some, I am not disowning my past nor pulling the ladder up behind me. I am grateful to the system, benefited from it and believe in it. But it must deliver for all, including those who are paying for it. Fear of the right wing press is justified but it is still fear and we should overcome that. I feel responsible socialism is necessary.

The problem is what would you (and I) do? I think clinging to an idealised picture is not the answer. I am reluctant to write more because I sense I am in reality much closer to you than mjw.