Expendable people: the truth about US workfare. And some interviews with long-unemployed people.

With the appalling Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne due to force the long-term unemployed into US-style workfare (compulsory attendance at unpaid jobs in “return” for benefits), I thought I’d post a few truths about workfare as it has unfolded in the US.

A couple of years ago, I did some reporting on US workfare with Community Voices Heard, a New York member-based group made up of people on low incomes and workfare, and John Krinsky, associate professor and political science department chair at the City College of New York City, and the author of Free Labor: Workfare and the Contested Language of Neoliberalism. I learned enough from that to know that Osborne and IDS’ plan is entirely unsubstantiated and cheaply populist. Of course – that goes for most of his plans, but this one is something else and should be twatted out of the park.

Let’s have a few facts, then. The fact is that neither Osborne nor IDS plan to help people into work (or to improve wages, or work term and conditions, for that matter) – the rubbish results of his work programme tell you that already. They plan only to make life even harder for people who are out of work and to pull off a few Daily Mail headlines at their expense. That’s the only reason that anyone would base their plans on the American experience. It isn’t about improving lives. It is about scoring cheap electoral points off a group of people who politicians see as easy targets. I’ve posted a few interviews with people who are in that category at the end of this blog.

So let’s look at this. We’ll start with a few questions and answers.

Where did workfare begin in the US?

Workfare in America has been around for many years, but is generally understood to have its modern incarnation in Bill Clinton’s 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Clinton had campaigned on an election promise to “end welfare as we know it.”

Did it “succeed”? (whatever that means)

HAHAHAHAHAHA. It certainly pushed people in need off social security, which is the usual neoliberal measure of success. The fact that it pushed a lot of people into poverty is neither here nor there, I am sure. The number of people on welfare dropped after Clinton brought PRWORA in, but, as people like John Krinsky will tell you, that was at least in part because welfare became an awful lot harder to get. No matter if people needed it. PRWORA was – and this point needs to be made good and loud – extraordinarily punitive. With the act came time-limits for benefit eligibility, strict workfare requirements and heavy sanctions for non-attenders. It also excluded immigrants who had been in the country for under five years. Those changes meant that people in need were easily deterred.

PRWORA established TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) as the main welfare programme for families with dependent children under 18 and devolved responsibility for managing (and cutting) welfare rolls to states.

There’s evidence that TANF cut assistance to families in need as the post-2008 recession gathered pace – because demand outstripped funding. Some states cut monthly cash assistance benefits for TANF families, reducing already very low benefits,” or tightened already-tight eligibility time limits, or cut support for low-income working families.

“Welfare rolls dropped, but part of what happened was the new criteria and tougher enforcement,” Krinsky told me. PRWORA’s architects aimed to throw people off welfare rolls, not to meet need – exactly a scenario to set IDS salivating.

Where did people go?

When Rudy Giuliani was asked where people who’d left welfare rolls had gone after he introduced New York City’s workfare programme, his answer was a scintillating – Err, Dunno. The city had not bothered to track them. It’s possible that some people went into work (in the late 1990s, there was more of it around, although a lot of it was and is so low-paid that people still required Medicaid and food stamps to meet their costs – exactly the sort of problem that we’re seeing here, with people needing working tax credits, housing benefit and foodbanks to subsidise their low and falling wages).

It’s also very possible, as Krinsky told me, that the stringent new rules on welfare forced people into unstable work (casual childcare and care work, waitressing for cash and so on) and out-and-out poverty. His comment: In New York, about four years after the city started “reforming” welfare, “we started to see a spike in the number of homeless people. That has continued unabated.” This New York Times story gives a chilling account of the realities for people who can’t access social security. (link via @johnnyvoid). “They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow.”

The truth – not a commodity IDS trades in – is that there’s precious little evidence that workfare leads to ongoing and decently-paid employment. In fact, there’s precious little evidence on it at all. A comparative study of the American, Canadian and Australian experiences by Richard Crisp and Del Roy Fletcher for the DWP demonstrates this. The report authors say early on that “It is important to note that the evidence on workfare is limited. Most research tends to evaluate welfare-to-work programmes in their entirety without isolating the impact of the workfare component.” Giuliani’s wondrous Work Experience Programme yielded particularly thin results, “with Human Resources Administration (HRA) records showing that only five percent of WEP participants found jobs.”

That report also found that workfare was particularly ineffective for people who were considered to have multiple barriers to work – barriers like low literacy levels, transport problems, limited access to childcare, or physical and emotional problems. This is significant, because these problems can affect people who are in the long-term unemployed group that IDS means to target.

Let’s not forget either that bias and prejudice will out as punitive regimes are installed. Several years into Wisconsin’s much-touted workfare programme, it emerged that African-American workfare participants were sanctioned more harshly than white participants. A study by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future reported that 42% of African-American participants were sanctioned and 45% of Hispanic participants, while the rate was 24% for white participants.


Let’s hear from a few people who’ve been through all of this and/or who are about to go through it.

As part of my earlier work, I spoke to two New York WEP workfare participants – Pamela Brown and Tyletha Samuels – about their experiences of that highly punitive system. Neither had found ongoing employment through WEP.

Samuels was an unpaid clerical workfare worker at a Medicaid office. “I liked that job. I thought there would be a [paid] job at the end of it, but there wasn’t.”

Brown found that she was sent to maintenance jobs. “Nothing ever turned into employment. I worked hard, saying – “here is my resume. Why aren’t you sending me more towards office positions?”

Both women had been sanctioned. Often. Brown was once sanctioned because an administrative error meant she was expected to be in four places at once. A 2008 Community Voices Heard investigation found that 68% of participants were sanctioned while in the back-to-work programme. The same report found that 60% of all sanctions notices “were found to be in error after HRA reviewed the cases at conciliation hearings.”

Both women also believed that they were being asked to work at jobs that would have earned them a proper wage once upon a time. New York certainly had form on that front. Several years into New York city’s workfare programme, District Council 37, a union which represented municipal employees, took Giuliani to court, saying that his workfare programme “had illegally replaced nearly 2000 unionised clerical workers with unpaid welfare recipients in three agencies.”

“What you do with workfare,” Krinksy told me, “is that you take paid work away from people who would otherwise be doing it for compensation. It introduces different pressure points in the wage labour system. It gets rid of people who were doing jobs and contributes a larger segmentation of the labour market where you have better and better paid managers who redistribute the work, so that a good deal of the labour is done on a part-time basis, on a volunteer basis, or by workfare workers.” Indeed. We’re already getting a picture of the number of public sector workers who are on zero hours, casual contracts and in the work programme in this country.

Talking with people dealing with long term unemployment in the UK

When I read the NYT article about people in poverty selling food stamps and skipping meals to get by, I was struck by the author’s observation that many of people interviewed “have problems like addiction or depression, which can make assisting them politically unpopular, and they have received little attention in a downturn that has produced an outpouring of concern for the middle class.”

I’ve thought a lot about that as I’ve talked to people who have been unemployed for the long term here. Their stories are stories of prejudice (other people’s, that is) and inequality. Massive inequality – in experience and in prospects. They’re the stories of people who have addiction problems, or mental health problems, or a combination of those and life-in-general problems, but who are not allowed to make their way back. They’re politically unpopular and will become more so as Iain Duncan Smith and others set up targets for ire. Because that’s our era. If you’re Nobody and you fall into a hole, you’re left in it. You’re made to fight for jobs and housing and JSA and ESA. If, on the other hand, you’re Somebody and you fall into a hole, David Cameron, or George Osborne, or even Alan Rusbridger will send a ladder to that hole and help you out. If you’re Chris Huhne, for instance, you’re allowed back. If you’re a BBC executive and you’ve flubbed, you get a massive handout. If you’re the two blokes whose stories I recount below, you’ll be punished til you’re dead.

For example:

I spent several hours recently at a Stroud drop-in centre talking to a man called John Evans. He’s someone IDS would target for workfare.

John was 60 and, like most people who reach 60, had been through a few disasters. He’d also experienced severe depression.

John had a job and a home, but he lost the job and then the home when his marriage broke up. He’d been an engineer. “I got an apprenticeship out of school making electric motors. Then, I moved into another job and stayed there for 12 years. Then I got made redundant. You get made redundant and I got used to it.”

The last time was the final time though. “I went into the job centre once and said “I went here for a job and I was told I was too old.” He [the man at the jobcentre] said “well – that’s ageist.” He said “you can do them for that.” I said “well, it’s not my place to do them. I won’t take it any further because being a smaller town word gets around.”

So he’s now on JSA at age 60, getting sanctioned as often as anyone (which is often) and living in a shared house (“eight people live in my house. I share the bathroom and the toilet and the kitchen. I’ve got a microwave in my room.”).

The day we met (it was a Wednesday), John was worried that he wouldn’t get his money that week. We talked about that for a long time. He was very afraid of sanctions. All I could think was that he should have gone into banking or politics and media and screwed up on a bigger scale. He should have been Fred Goodwin, or Chris Huhne. He actually had a lot in common with Chris Huhne – the lost job, the broken marriage, the fall from grace. The bit he didn’t have in common was the birthright and the subsequent political and media connections. So – John’s on JSA, living in a shared house and facing compulsory workfare in a job for which he at the very least should be properly paid, while Chris Huhne is back on telly and handing out the advice each week in a Guardian column. That’s the world we’re in.

Ditto for Darren Bayliss. Darren was another man I spent a long time talking with at that drop-in centre in Stroud. He was a long-term heroin addict who’d been living in a tent for several weeks. He’d walked from Cheltenham to Stroud to get away from the Cheltenham drug scene. He’d been clean for four weeks, though. “I was on heroin the first time round for about 12 years and then I got clean. I was on methadone, but it made me really ill. Then I got clean, but then I went on Suboxone. When I came to Stroud I had a raging habit, but I walked here (from Cheltenham) to get away from it all. It’s a start.”

It was a challenge, though, and that’s the point. Here was a guy trying to sort his life out – without so much as a bed to sleep in. But, you know – let’s not sort that out. Let’s not fix that. Let’s give Iain Duncan Smith a really blunt instrument to smash him with. That’s what it’s all about.