Punishing the “workshy”

Channel 4 News reports that 66% of the public support withdrawing job seekers’ allowance from people who turn down the offer of a job or job interview. This comes on the day when Iain Duncan Smith revealed his “three strikes” plan to frighten encourage people off benefits:

Unemployed claimants who turn down offers of work, refuse to apply for jobs or fail to turn up for interviews will lose their Job Seekers Allowance. If they do this once, they lose the £65-a-week allowance for three months. If they do this twice, for six months; and if they do this three times, for three years.

69% of people also support more stringent testing for those receiving Disability Living Alowance. 73 per cent support plans to make the unemployed spend four weeks doing unpaid work in order to keep receiving their full benefits

I would hazard a guess that many of those supporting IDS have not got much further than “Well if they can’t be bothered to take the job that’s there, why should they get benefits?” If only it were that simple.

For a start, making DLA tests disability benefit tests* even more stringent, when we know that they are already not fit for purpose and are administered by a private company that is required to get people off the benefit in order to make profit, will result in more people on JSA that are not actually able to work, particularly in a society that prizes long, non-flexible working hours and is thoroughly disabilst. Do 66% of the public really want to force people into a situation where they will have to choose between taking a job that will make them even more ill and being left in abject poverty? Individuals are already storing up pills to commit suicide should their benefits and support be cut off. At least one man has tragically already taken his life, leaving the letters notifying him that his benefits were being stopped in lieu of a suicide note. This is the harsh reality of the benefit cuts.

Secondly, what happens if an individual refuses a job because it does not fit in with their caring responsibilities? Or because the vast majority of their salary would be spent paying someone else to take over the care work they do, work that they could perform better themselves? People officially designated as full time carers and parents with children under five will not be subject to the three strikes rule, but parents with children over five will be. If a single mother refuses three jobs that would prevent her looking after her kids properly, the money she needs to feed those kids will be cut off. The government claims that advisers will be asked to “ensure that the requirements they place on a recipient are reasonable for that person, taking into account their particular capabilities and circumstances”, but with a culture of complete disdain for benefit claimants I hardly think we can guarantee this will happen.

Other issues to consider include how far people are expected to travel to take a job, will they be expected to move home, will they have to put up with poor working conditions or workplace harassment in order to ensure they are not cut off for three years? Forcing people into jobs on pain of losing JSA can only make them more vulnerable as workers.

And quite how are we going to provide jobs for all the people on JSA when 100,000s of jobs are being cut? Even work at the bottom end of the pay scale will end up being taken – unpaid – by benefit-claimants that IDS wants to put to work so they don’t forget the “habits and routines” of working life. Why force people on benefits to do manual labour when they could be paid a proper wage for the work that needs to be done?

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, the Department for Work and Pensions’ own 2008 research into workfare schemes in other countries concludes that:

There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.

(H/T harpymarx)

So, it might on the surface sound logical to stop giving money to people who do not take jobs they are offered, or to make them work for their benefits. But the reality is far more complicated. What we need is policies and schemes that will enable people to enter employment, not punishments and sanctions. What we need is universal free childcare and jobs that are valued for the good they do society, not the number of pounds they bring in for millionaire shareholders. What we need is a radical overhaul of our working culture and employment structures, so that people are treated as complex individuals with varying needs and responsibilties, not just cogs in the Tories’ sacred private sector machine. Trying to force people into an employment system that cannot cope with them is just a waste of time, with a potentially devastating human cost.

*Apologies for my error here. The disability benefit that is dependent on one’s ability to work is Employment and Support Allowance, not DLA. I do think the poll is still indicative of support for more stringent testing for this benefit too, as the supposed epidemic of people “pretending” they are ill or disabled so they don’t have to work is generally the focus of media coverage of disability benefit, and the general public will base their views on this coverage.