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Posts Tagged ‘workfare’

Society has problems that need fixing.

The people we ostensibly put in charge of fixing society’s problems have a great deal of power to enact their proposed solutions.

The perceived problems faced by society, which it’s assumed need to be addressed by those in charge, include such items as: the unjustified claiming of “free money” by those who haven’t proved themselves to deserve it; long-term unemployment; and criminal behaviour by juveniles.

Popular salves for these maladies include, respectively: imposing benefit sanctions for transparently idiotic reasons; forced placement on full-time, unpaid workfare schemes; and solitary confinement of children, a practice widely regarded as torture.

I talk semi-regularly about aspects of our society that I truly believe will be looked back on with horror, disgust, and bewilderment in a century or so, and I want to explore that in some more depth.

Even people who haven’t experienced it directly will be familiar with the racist grandparents trope. People who grew up in a different era often don’t have the same sensibilities to certain issues that we do today, and maybe they can’t be expected to. It doesn’t make them bad people, but they were raised with a certain set of attitudes being strongly normalised, and it’s not always easy to see, decades later, why the way you’ve always acted is suddenly so offensive to people, or so drastically needs altering.

It can be hard to articulate to someone behind the curve just why it’s important to adapt like this. “Just don’t be racist” doesn’t seem like it should need spelling out; and yet if something was “just the way things were” seventy years ago, it may not be obvious that the world has changed for the better.

I’d be amazed if there weren’t things that my generation’s grandkids end up being impatient for me and my peers to adapt to, but which we struggle embarrassingly with. The thing I particularly imagine them wondering about us is:

Was that really the best you could do?

Seriously?

All that technology and productivity and abundance and capacity to do amazing things together, and you couldn’t find any better way to induce better behaviour in kids, or deal with supposed “freeloading”, without shitting all over thousands of other people who were just trying to get by?

You really didn’t have any better ideas for how to help lift up the lowest among you, and give everyone a chance to thrive?

There was really no interest in picking a military strategy that didn’t involve the useless mass murder of random foreign civilians?

Were you guys actually, really, honestly trying as hard as you can to not totally fuck everything?

Really, though?

When they get around to asking us that, I’m not sure what our answer is going to be.

But maybe I’m just projecting, because I’ve already been asking it for so long myself.

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I lack the time, energy, will, calm, poise, rationality, and overall mental composure to talk much about the condition of the welfare state in this country and the Conservatives’ attitudes toward those who benefit from it (or seek to benefit from it, or are systematically exploited by it).

However, apropos of something that came up on one of several blogs that regularly make me angry and sad about this subject, I’d like to post a brief reminder.

Whatever the heck conservative think-tank Policy Exchange are doing appears confused and misguided, at least from this reporting. But one representative phrase leapt out at me, a statement they apparently believe is supported by a majority of the public according to a recent poll:

Everyone should be made to work for their benefits except mothers with young children.

Given the prevalence of this kind of thinking, its deliberate exacerbation by many current politicians, and the extent to which the despicable repackaging of slavery for the 21st century known as workfare is still being falsely heralded as a boon for the underclasses, something apparently needs to be strongly reiterated.

If you’re doing work, you should get paid for it. If other people value the output of your labour, they should remunerate you directly for that.

Benefits, on the other hand, are what people get which doesn’t directly correspond to their own ability to pay, either in toil or coin. If you’re not working, or you’re trying to find work, or you’re ill or disabled, or if you just don’t fancy any of the shitty jobs going (yep, fuck it, basic income for everyone), then you get benefits. They’re things you just get, because we’re a social species and we give a fuck about each other. We understand that none of us can look after ourselves in total isolation, that sometimes some folk need some help, and that the rest of us have the capacity to provide that help.

What follows from these ideas, then, is that you don’t make people work for their fucking benefits.

Benefits are what people get without having to prove themselves to you.

And you especially don’t make people work for their benefits by forcing them into a full-time job, and then not actually paying them a salary, but making their benefits the only thing conditional on their labour, thus making them massively worse off than if you’d kept your grubby, sanction-hungry fingers out of the whole deal.

Seriously.

With all the effort some people put in to making sure none of these feckless scroungers gets a goddamn penny more than you’ve decided they’re entitled to, we could feed the fucking planet.

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Opinions

I’m opinionsourcing this post again, which I think is what I decided to call that thing where I save a bunch of links about a topic, intending to write something cogent and insightful and full of citations later on, but then give up and just post a bunch of links and say “Here, all of this, that’s what I’d have said if I were a more effective human being.”

For instance, The Onion had a thing at the Oscars. (I’m so articulate, you can see why I’m keeping my own creative contributions to a minimum here.) I somewhat agree with Charles at Popehat, also think Matt Kirshen has a point, and am on board with a great deal of the Flick Filosopher’s thoughts.

I’m less interested in Seth McFarlane’s performance. Greta Christina has good words on that. The idea that jokes can’t be powerful and never make serious points is obviously ludicrous; what I keep coming back to is that the implicit premise of the joke is crucial in determining whether it’s worth taking offense at. I get most frustrated about this among discussions of “rape jokes”; the simple fact that rape is the subject matter of a joke isn’t enough to determine whether or not it’s funny, or offensive. If the premise, when you unpick it, is that rape is whimsical or comical, then it might be worth raising a fuss; Louis CK, meanwhile, provides an example of how to joke around the theme of rape without any horrendous or abusive subtext. (That wasn’t even the routine I was looking for when I typed “louis ck rape” into YouTube, but it’ll do.)

Anyway, I’m not meant to be opinionatifying my own thoughts tonight. Onward.

It’s also important to note that workfare continues to be some serious bullshit. The government are still pushing to force unemployed and disabled people into unpaid work, despite legal setbacks, increasing evidence that the scheme doesn’t work, and Iain Duncan Smith being an unutterable shit.

That was my own opinion sneaking in there again, wasn’t it? Sorry.

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Workfare doesn’t work, say the people organising it.

The Department for Work and Pensions have performed their own assessment of the MWA programme (that’s “Mandatory Work Activity” – bit of a giveaway in the name there), and concluded that there’s no reason to suspect it provides any worthwhile benefit to the people it’s being inflicted upon.

Employment minister Chris Grayling has defended the scheme, protesting that the data used in the study was out of date and so the conclusions are no longer applicable, and said:

We’ve found that a month’s full-time activity can be a real deterrent for some people who are either not trying or who are gaming the system. But we’re also fighting a battle to stop claimants slipping back into the benefits system by the back door.

First of all, I don’t know how he can say that “we’ve found” anything of the sort, unless there’s been some other study done into the same scheme which isn’t being reported on.

Secondly, let’s be clear that by “a month’s full-time activity”, what he actually means is “a month of working, full-time, without being paid, with the threat of having your benefits cut off looming over your head if you don’t comply”. Now, I daresay people who are gaming the system probably do find that something of a deterrent, but I’d also stick my neck out and hazard that it’s pretty fucking off-putting for people who are trying to support themselves and their families while they look for a fucking job, too.

This is exactly what I’m sick of hearing when politicians talk about this kind of thing. We’re always being warned about the threat of people cheating the system; there’s rarely a thought spared for people being exploited by the system, such as those forced into working full-time for no pay. Nor for the people being thrown haplessly into the system, when they lose their minimum wage jobs because their corporate employers realise they can save money by replacing them with someone from Workfare who doesn’t need a salary.

This focus by politicians and the elite on fomenting contempt for those among us worst off and least able to defend themselves is as blatant a case of actual class warfare as I can think of. Particularly when – as I keep banging on about – the expense to the country imposed by benefit fraud by the poor is dwarfed by that of tax avoidance by the rich.

Anyway, the case against the Workfare scheme is now supported by common sense, basic human decency, and the only systematic evidence available.

Is anyone listening yet?

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There’s a lot I don’t know or understand about politics, and learning more about it seems, if anything, only to make my ignorance more obvious. But one thing I do reckon, with some conviction, is that people ought to help each other.

I dunno, call me a radical socialist. (Flattery will get you everywhere.)

I have some vague, meandering thoughts on the nature of this help we offer each other, too. Let’s start things very simple.

Times are tough at the moment, and while many of us are doing okay, some of us are struggling. (We’re all “us”, remember. There are no others.) If we can help those of us who are currently worse off in any way, that would generally seem to be a good thing.

Of course, some of us will be tempted to take advantage of our generosity, and accept help which they don’t really need – but let’s not be among those cynical ones of us who see this as an argument against generosity. If, in trying to do good for those who need it, we accidentally spend our time doing some good for someone who didn’t really need it also, this doesn’t have to be a horrible outcome.

But it’s not unreasonable to take some measures, to ensure that our generosity isn’t abused. Our resources for helping those who need it is limited, after all, and those who take help they don’t need might be indirectly harming others, to whom such help is no longer as available.

For instance, one of the ways we try and keep the needy among us afloat (in the UK) is with Disability Living Allowance. If one of us has an illness or disability that makes it more difficult or impossible for them to do certain kinds of work, it’s a good thing when the rest of us offer to help.

But when our own resources are thin, we might want to be careful just who we help in this way. There might, after all, be some unscrupulous souls who try to take help they don’t really need. They might falsely claim to need assistance, when actually they’re simply looking for ways to avoid paying their own way.

Now, even though this sort of benefit fraud is far, far from being the country’s most serious financial problem, it’s not out of the question that we should take some sort of precautions when deciding who we help. Maybe there should be some sort of check that people are actually in need of help, so long as we don’t get too officious and stingy about it and lose track of the primary goal of helping each other.

Another example we have here is Jobseeker’s Allowance, a regular payment given to those who can’t find paid employment.

This is a valuable way of helping many people, but once again there are those who’ll try and game the system. Some people might be happy to take the help, without even looking for a chance to earn a decent living for themselves. So, maybe it’s not crazy to expect people to really be looking for work, if they want to get the help reserved for people in between jobs.

Maybe, then, if there’s a job available, within a reasonable distance of someone claiming help and in a field of expertise where they’re capable of contributing, we should expect them to take it, unless there’s a good reason not to. If they persistently turn down legitimate work offers, their claim to be a “jobseeker” might start looking a little flimsy, and we might suspect they’d rather not do any work but keep letting the rest of us support them, which isn’t really fair on the others we’re trying to help who really need it.

And perhaps, to make sure the system’s not being exploited, we should take some of the people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, put them on a bus across the country overnight, make them sleep under a bridge, give them no access to toilets, make them change clothes in public, and tell them that if they don’t work 14-hour shifts for no pay we’re cutting their benefits.

Wait… Sorry, I seemed to turn into a completely evil bastard in that last paragraph. I must have been channeling some of the people involved in Workfare.

Downing Street’s comment on what amounts to slave labour being used to make sure the Queen’s jubilee celebrations went off without a hitch were that it was an “isolated incident” and… that seems to be it. It’s of no further concern to them, apparently. It just happened the once, so it might as well have not happened at all.

The government and many tabloids are still trying to convince us that the workfare scheme isn’t an unjustifiably cruel and exploitative joke, and that immigrant benefit cheats are the ones who are really destroying our country. But I’m far more pissed off about those in authority treating the “little people” like this than I am about the idea that some families might be mooching off the government’s welfare system more than I’ve ever been able to. It takes a special kind of bigotry to still find the working class and job-seeking “scroungers” the most loathsome part of this interaction.

The almost comically dystopian details – the lack of toilet facilities, the four-hour coach ride from Bristol in the middle of the night, the apparent deception in implying that participants would be paid before later calling it “work experience”, and so on – have drawn some much-needed attention to the Workfare issue, but these aren’t what make its basic premise unacceptable. It’s not a system that’s essentially fine except for this one outlying instance where people were treated without a shred of humanity.

What makes it unacceptable is that the safety net we’re supposed to be offering is nothing of the sort. More and more people are losing their benefits, and those who keep them are having to jump through greater and greater hoops to be deemed worthy of our help – in this case, to the extent of being forced to work in intolerable conditions without being paid.

This latest situation with the jubilee stewards symbolises the way some people see a certain class of jobseekers, and where they see themselves by comparison. This classism and lack of compassion is, ultimately, what needs to change, but in the meantime it’s clear that the whole system of Workfare itself is beneath us as a sentient species.

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Public Interest Lawyers have put together a handy fact-sheet on the government’s “Back To Work” schemes, known popularly as “Workfare”.

They’ve looked at the policies that are being put in place, supposedly to give people out of work a chance to get back on the career ladder and develop worthwhile experience. They’ve found, like just about everyone who’s paid attention to the scheme in any detail, that the policies are achieving no such thing, and no intellectually honest assessment of the situation could conceivably have led the government to make the decisions it has.

2. The Government is not “paying them… through benefits” to work, as the Deputy Prime Minister has claimed today. Jobseekers allowance ranges from £53.45 to £67.50 per week. It is paid for one specific (and obvious) purpose – to support people whilst they seek employment. It is not remuneration for work, and even if it were it would mean that people on Back to Work schemes would be getting paid as little as £1.78 per hour, often whilst working for some of our biggest retailers. Many of those retailers are now realising that such a scenario is unacceptable and have either pulled out of the schemes or demanded that the Government thinks again.

3. People are not being given a choice. Ministers claim that work under these schemes is not forced but voluntary. This is not correct. The Community Action Programme, Work Programme and Mandatory Work Activity Scheme (the clue is in the name) are mandatory, and jobseekers will lose their jobseeker’s allowance if they do not participate. The Government says the sector-based work academy and work experience schemes are voluntarily, but Cait Reilly was told in no uncertain terms that her participation was “mandatory”.

And so on. It’s beyond abundantly clear by now that the coalition government is being entirely disingenuous in its claims to want what’s actually best for young people and the unemployed. It’s ignored the evidence too many times, and done too much to polarise the issue in a prejudiced and classist fashion with terms like “job snobs” and “scroungers”. If you’re not already rich and powerful enough to be of use to them, the government are not your friend.

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– It’s important that certain facts about US military action overseas aren’t reported in the media. Otherwise the public might get “the wrong idea” – which, in this case, means “an accurate idea”.

– As the government keep telling us, these “workfare” schemes where jobseekers often do entirely unpaid full-time work for large, profitable corporations aren’t compulsory. There’s a voluntary work experience scheme in place. It’s just that, if you refuse it, you may be put on a mandatory one.

– Apparently both passive-aggression and actual aggression are among the standard ways in which elected officials interact with the general public. How reassuring to know we have people representing us who hold us in such high regard.

Tim Harford for Chancellor.

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