The post below – based on Kyla’s story (named changed) – is an excerpt from a collection I’m working on.
The project collects interviews I’ve made since 2014 with people directly affected by benefit cuts and welfare reform.
This collection is being made possible thanks to a Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust grant. I’m posting extracts from this collection here as I work on it.
Workfare: how government gets something for nothing out of people in deep poverty
This article is about workfare – that failed (for workfare workers), but electorally-popular concept where benefit claimants must work for unemployment benefits.
Tory, coalition and Labour (and American, Australian and Canadian) governments have been keen advocates of workfare schemes for decades – even in very recent decades, when the widespread failure of workfare as a means of placing people in ongoing paid jobs has been extensively reported.
I’ve written about workfare in the UK and in America many times in the last five years.
To my mind, politicians persist with workfare schemes for one reason when it comes down to it: harsh workfare programmes, with their punitive street-cleaning and charity-shop workfare placements, and tough benefit sanctions for non-compliance, give politicians a chance to crack down on the unemployed for show. Governments are desperate to prove to welfare-skeptic electorates that people who claim unemployment benefits are made to toil for their dole.
“Toughlove,” is the word that workfare’s advocates like to use when they talk about forcing people who are out of work into gruelling workfare jobs on the threat of sanctions.
A Clinton government would “end welfare as we know it,” pledged Bill Clinton on a campaign promise which led to the game-changing (not in a good way for the poorest social security recipients in particular) Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act with its exacting work-for-welfare conditions in 1996.
Clinton said that as though ending welfare as people knew it was a good thing. The reality was that PRWORA, with its strict time limits for social security eligibility and tough workfare and sanction conditions pushed thousands off welfare rolls and into dire poverty. Workfare schemes such as the Wisconsin (W2) programme and the New York (WEP) scheme became notorious for such exclusion, particularly as millennium recession deepened. Lockout from social security was no joke as escape from poverty through any type of paid work became harder.
Workfare’s champions didn’t care. They didn’t care where society’s poorest went as they were excluded from much-needed state support. No matter that society’s poorest went into dangerous and illegal activities such as selling blood and food stamps, skipping meals, shoplifting, scavenging and returning to violent partners to make ends meet. Social security is a numbers game for movers and shakers in the modern age. All that mattered and matters is that the number of people claiming support drops.
Workfare in the UK
This article is based on in-depth interviews with forced participants in a recent failed UK workfare scheme: George Osborne’s Help to Work programme with its Community Work Placements.
Community Work Placements – CWP – were workfare placements, mostly in charities, aimed at people who were long-term unemployed and thought short of workplace skills, whatever that meant. Actually, the people I interviewed on CWP tended to be older and short of decent work opportunities, rather than skills, but government didn’t talk much about that.
Neither did government talk much about learning from the failure of American workfare schemes, or about the dangers of imposing strict workfare schemes and benefit sanctions on in-need people in a recession.
CWP was rough. It wasn’t tailored to meet people’s circumstances and needs. Some participants I spoke with were older people who were pushed into hard physical work from which they gained nothing, except confirmation of their own suspicions that they were being punished. That “work” included walking around with charity collection buckets in freezing cold weather, or standing all day to sort and clean donated clothes in charity shops.
CWP was memorable for the two reasons that such blunt workfare schemes so often are.
The first was that it was launched at great cost (£300m) with a shifty and strident politician (Osborne) banging on in the foreground about long-term unemployment being a fault of a widespread benefit claimant sense of entitlement (“no something-for-nothing any more“), rather than the economy.
The second was that it failed spectacularly. Launched into jobcentres in 2014, CWP was shut down just two years later after falling short most of the way along of its own modest targets for workfare placement companies to place 15% of CWP “graduates” in jobs. CWP was ditched not long before Osborne was.