Thursday, 2 August 2012

The worklessness myth

Founded by Iain Duncan-Smith, the work of the Centre for Social Justice on its alleged ‘five pathways to poverty’ has strongly influenced the Coalition’s flawed and unjust approach to welfare reform. To crudely repeat the CSJ’s argument, ‘benefits trap millions in worklessness and dependency over several generations and that future economic recovery will bring only a slight reduction in worklessness’.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s recent riposte, Poverty: The Role of Institutions, Behaviours and Culture, helps to dispel the myth and leaves the CSJ – and the Coalition’s welfare reform advocates – with some questions to answer.

First and foremost, work is not always in itself a ‘cure’ to poverty. Those at most risk are families with a single earner in low wage or part time job. Under-employment, and the availability of good employment opportunities, is the issue for such households.

The Coalition’s rhetoric has focused on demonising the economically inactive, such as those claiming incapacity benefits, with the claim that the current benefits system is an attractive alternative to paid employment, and that this view is passed on from one generation to the next. In fact, only 0.8 percent of all households – a mere 15,000 across the UK – have two or more generations that have never worked.

Whilst there is a correlation between the periods of unemployment of fathers and sons, local labour market conditions and the availability of jobs are important factors underlying this. Equally, when the local labour market is strong those with health problems and disabilities are more likely to work than those in areas with weak labour demand. It would seem that the availability of local employment opportunities has the most impact on worklessness.

The CSJ’s suggestion that there is a ‘culture’ of worklessness in some communities that creates poverty misses the point entirely. As work disappears from an area, the individuals in these neighbourhoods face less access to employment, creating an alternative culture that lacks routine, organisation and structure. It takes time to turn this situation around, and habits can be difficult to break. JRF’s research actually suggests that residents in disadvantaged communities share values and aspirations similar to the rest of us: fairness, hard work and responsibility.

Do the CSJ and the Coalition seriously think that reducing the benefits available to these communities, leaving them worse off, will actually make them less likely to be in poverty? What’s needed is strong local leadership and better community engagement led by community organisations that can provide support and advice to break habits and raise aspirations.

Once you cut through the right-wing drivel, it’s pretty clear what’s lacking – jobs.
State-sponsored vilification of the most vulnerable in our society does nothing to tackle the unfounded prejudices that exist about our disadvantaged communities. It is a pretty disdainful fig-leaf for the coalition to use to cover up the absence of a growth and employment strategy.

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