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Debate: Workfare

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Should unemployed people be made to work for their welfare money?

Background and context

Traditionally in developed countries, the unemployed have been given state welfare benefits until they find new jobs. They have not been required to do anything in exchange for this “dole money”, other than be actively seeking and available for work (although this can be hard for the government to ensure). Workfare was originally developed by some U.S. states as an alternative to this traditional model; instead the unemployed have to work on government-approved schemes or lose their welfare benefits. Now widely applied in the USA as a result of federal legislation in the mid-1990s, workfare is being increasingly introduced, or at least considered, by other developed countries (for example, Canada and the UK). Models vary widely in their approach, but in many schemes welfare recipients are offered the alternatives of training courses or government-subsidised workfare schemes. Usually an unemployed person is paid benefit for a specified number of months, and only if they fail to find a job at the end of this period does workfare apply.[1]

Contents

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Finding employment - Do workfare schemes actually help workers find employment?

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Yes

  • Workfares offer the unemployed opportunities to develop skills to work their way out of poverty: Productive work raises the expectations of those involved by increasing their self-respect and provides them with more confidence in their abilities. It also develops skills associated with work, such as time keeping, taking and giving instructions, working in a team, accepting responsibility and prioritising. Such skills may seem mundane but they are very valuable to employers and their absence among the long-term unemployed is a key reason why they find it so hard to gain jobs. Individuals who are currently working are also more attractive to potential employers than those who are unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed.[2]
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No

  • Workfare schemes are of little use if there are no jobs out there for people to do – something which is an issue of wider economic management. Often the skills which employers are really demanding are literacy, numeracy and familiarity with modern information technology, which menial make-work tasks are unlikely to provide the unemployed with. Far better to invest in proper education and training schemes instead. Even if such skills might be developed through workfare schemes, will forcing people into such work really mean they get the benefits? Most of the long-term unemployed are older, made redundant from declining industries; they do not lack skills but suffer instead from ageist prejudices among employers. Finally, if the ‘workfare’ jobs that unemployed people are being forced into are real jobs that need doing, then they should simply be employed to do them in the normal way (either by the state or by private companies).[3]
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Dependency culture - does making the unemployed work for their money break the dependency culture?

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Yes

  • Making the unemployed work for their welfare money positively breaks the dependency culture: Receiving unemployment benefit for doing nothing makes individuals too reliant on the state and encourages apathy and laziness; this is particularly true of the long-term unemployed and of those who have never had a paying job since leaving school. Tying welfare money to productive work challenges these something-for-nothing assumptions and shows that the state has a right to ask for something in return for the generosity of its taxpayers.[4]
  • Making the unemployed work for their welfare benefits calls the bluff of those claiming benefit but not really looking for jobs. Such scroungers include the incurably lazy, those who are defrauding the taxpayer by claiming welfare while holding down a paying job, and those who are working in the black economy. Moving from a traditional something-for-nothing welfare scheme to a workfare system stops all these individuals from being a burden on the state, cutting welfare rolls very rapidly and allowing the government to concentrate upon assisting the truly needy.[5]
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No

  • Putting the unemployed into workfare schemes actually limits their opportunities to look for work, by making them show up for make-work schemes when they could be job hunting: Even if the numbers of those claiming unemployment benefit are reduced by the threat of such a scheme, that does not necessarily remove them from welfare rolls – they may, for example, be pushed into claiming other benefits, such as disability allowances. Others may prefer to turn to crime for income rather than be forced into workfare projects.[6]
  • People would actually rather not be unemployed and dependent on the state: No one voluntarily seeks to live on the very low income provided by state benefits, instead people become unemployed through no fault of their own; workfare stigmatises them as lazy and needing to be forced into work by state coercion. The schemes ignore the talents and ambitions of those involved, typically using them for menial tasks and manual labour that teach them no useful skills.[7]
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Economics - Is it economically affordable and valuable for a governments to spend on developing workfare schemes?

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Yes

  • Workfare schemes are an investment in people: Spending money on workfare schemes is an investment in people, who gain the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty, and the economy, which benefits from a better supply of labour. Although such schemes might cost more per person than just handing out dole money for doing nothing, their ability to deter fraudulent claimants makes them cheaper overall. Their success in moving the unemployed into real jobs also benefits the government and the wider economy, through taxation and increased consumer spending.[8]
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No

  • Workfare is actually a more expensive option than traditional unemployment benefit: The jobless are ultimately given at least the same amount of taxpayers money but the state also has to pay the costs of setting up the schemes, paying for materials, the wages of supervisors, transport and childcare costs, etc. In a recession, when the numbers of the unemployed rise substantially, the costs of workfare schemes could be prohibitive and lead to the collapse of the policy.[9]
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Social benefits - Do workfares produce good products for society?

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Yes

  • Society also benefits from the work done by those on workfare schemes: These might include environmental improvement in local communities, service to assist the elderly and disabled, and work for charities or local authorities. In many cases the labour they provide would not have been available in any other way, so the addition they make to everyone’s quality of life is a welcome bonus to the scheme.[10]
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No

  • Workfares have low standards that produce poor and potentially unsafe products: Individuals forced into workfare schemes lack incentives to work to a high standard, and may be actively disaffected. The work they do is therefore unlikely to benefit anyone much and raises a number of safety issues: would you drive across a bridge built by workfare labour? Would you trust your aged parent or pre-school child to a workfare carer? Would you trust them with any job that required the handling of money? Given these constraints, it is clear that the government may be unable to find enough worthwhile things for their forced labourers to do.[11]
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Harming low-paid workers? - Do workfares harm existing low-paid workers?

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Yes

  • Workfare projects can be designed so as not to displace low-paid jobs: Often workfare schemes are limited to non-profit organisations deliberately in order to avoid a negative impact upon the local job market. In any case, many workers on very low pay only do such work for a relatively short time before finding better jobs elsewhere, so this is not a rigid sector of the labour force, liable to be destroyed by workfare.[12]
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No

  • Workfare harms those already in employment but on very low pay, because their menial jobs are the kind of labour that workfare projects will provide. Why should a local authority pay people to pick up litter or lay paving, if workfare teams can be made to do it for much less? If low-paid jobs are displaced, the ultimate result may be higher unemployment. Even if workfare projects are limited to labour for charities and non-profit groups, they discourage active citizenship and volunteerism as the state is assuming responsibility for these initiatives.[13]

See also

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