What’s missing from the debate on welfare reform?

August 2, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy, Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

It’s worth recognising that the New Conservative rhetoric on welfare is somewhat different from that which has gone before. For over two decades it was a mainstream belief that the blame for welfare dependency lied with the claimants themselves. Encouraged by the sub-sociological pretensions of Charles Murray, it was common to speak of an ‘underclass’ of people who had voluntarily opted for welfare over work. If you accepted this assumption, it was logical that the only way of restoring responsibility was through a more austere welfare regime which could force them to take work.

In the current debate on welfare reform, the traditional rhetoric of responsibility remains, but the focus has shifted away from the supposed personal faults of welfare dependents and towards the mediation between claimants, the state and the jobs market. It’s no longer commonplace to hear the unemployed dismissed as lazy or feckless, but rather that the state has created disincentives to work.

There are elements of this change of tack which should be welcomed. It is a positive step for conservatives to acknowledge that the long-term unemployed are not simply the authors of their own despair, but can be constrained by factors outside of their control. We can also agree that employment should always pay more than a benefits system which has the sole purpose of protecting people from poverty.

But however radical the reform of the welfare system may or may not prove to be, simply redesigning the DWPs bureaucratic mechanisms won’t have any effect on either the social causes or consequences of long-term unemployment.

Let’s return, as this discussion so often does, to the topic of our ‘Broken Britain’. The Karen Matthews’ of the world, who Fraser Nelson suggests was created by the current welfare system, were not directly caused by the welfare state. The bad behaviours and lifestyles which afflict deprived communities weren’t created by the existence of the Job Seekers Allowance, but by the slow formation of anti-social norms and values as a result of a community’s economic disrepair & long-term joblessness. As I wrote in an older post:

The root cause of our gravest social problems is not big government, the welfare state, or even broken families. It is lack of work. When unemployment becomes long term, even generational, many of the values and behaviours which work develops begins to disappear. In its place are anti-social behaviours which can cause misery to otherwise upstanding working class communities. Worse still, these behaviours are then learned by their children, creating a cycle of state dependency, social exclusion, violence and abuse.

Whilst the above description might only refer to a small (but significant) section of the unemployed, these are people who lack some of the social, emotional & intellectual capabilities which are required to work. I’m talking about the mum of three who can’t read; the alcoholic who lives with his parents; the heroin addict who’s been shunned by her family; the kid who’s just been convicted for carrying a knife. Whilst their experiences of unemployment may differ considerably, they are all the kinds of people for whom the barriers to work are more numerous & serious than the government seems prepared to consider.

Responsibility is important; indeed, it is an essential component of citizenship. But a welfare state is only credible when it demands responsibility of those who already possess the capabilities which fit the job market. Where those capabilities are missing, the role of the welfare state should be provide opportunities for people to build them, and remove the social, emotional & intellectual barriers to steady employment and social well-being. That means more widespread provision of adult education, rehab for substance abusers, tax rebates for companies who train teen apprentices and a penal system which makes the most of a prisoner’s time behind bars. That would be the difference between a genuinely empowering welfare system and an ineffectual bureaucratic fiddle.

Update: corrected a few lousy spellings/sentences.

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