Tuesday, February 15, 2011

More nonsense about the Work-Shy

I guess I'm letting myself get a bit wound up by things in the news in order to get back to writing regularly.

Another problematic BBC News article UK needs to adopt tough US stance on earning welfare - another opinionated assertion posing as a news headline. From the main site, this was linked to as simply Workshy Britons. The article itself neither explains why the UK needs to adopt a tougher stance, nor does it demonstrate that there are any work-shy Britons.

Lawrie Mead, a US academic, visits Liverpool and laments how unemployed people feel entitled to having enough money to stay warm and have something to eat. Some telling sentences are

“One initial surprise was that the city did not appear down-at-heel.”

“The parents and children I encountered in Anfield seemed to me upbeat and well-organised. The community did not manifest the deeper disarray that one often encounters in poor areas in America.”

Thing is, being unemployed in the UK is a very different thing to being unemployed in the US. People are impoverished, but most people are not made desperate. The UK welfare state has been historically based on the idea that everyone pays into an insurance scheme and when someone does fall on hard times and need to claim from it, they do not have to give up their self-respect. Benefits are relatively generous and things like the National Health Service means that people don't so easily fall through the cracks. The vast majority of people who claim benefits work most of their lives and claim only briefly before returning to work. Just now, there are a lot of hard-working people on benefits because jobs are being lost all the time. These people do not need to be made to earn benefits – they already did. They simply need to be supported until such a time that they can earn a living and recommence paying into the pot

Another reason why impoverished parts of the country aren't so bad as impoverished parts of the US is that we have a minimum wage. It is illegal to employ people for less than £5.93 an hour (for those over 21). So if people are to work for their benefits, they cannot be expected to work more than 11 hours a week. That's just over two hours a day for the highest rate of Job Seekers Allowance.

But the biggest practical problem for getting unemployed people to work for their benefits is that there is no work. If the state had work that needed doing, it would surely employ peopl? . Unless of course the plan is to save the state money by first cutting public sector jobs, then forcing all these newly unemployed folk to work for illegally low pay under the guise of giving the work-shy incentives to work... well, it's a plan, I guess. Mead continues

“More important is the fact that many people still believe in entitlement - this is the idea that you have a right to get benefits if you qualify under the income rules, and you should not have to work for them.”

But you do. As a British citizen, you do have this right. Just as you have a right to claim on your car insurance if you have a bump. Everyone is entitled to claim benefits when they are out of work.

Something that really bugs me about the recent rhetoric around benefits is that there are lots of different ways in which the welfare state can work. There are lots of ways in which things could be reformed, made fairer, where we could guard against fraud and abuse and so on. There are even some ways in which costs could be cut.

But the principles underlining the benefits system are fundamentally fair. It is not a charity pot. The people of this country are not divided into hard-working tax-payers and work-shy layabouts. And just now, when more and more tax-payers are needing to claim from the pot – our pot - this rhetoric is particularly insulting.


Vic said...

Great article, as usual. The BBC is being pretty bad on this sort of stuff. My "favourite" was "cost have benefits have soared over the past 13 years". Unless my maths is totally up the creek, the figures quoted worked out at about 3% increase a year - in other words pretty much inflation.

Vic said...

Ahh - here's the figures:

"The cost of benefits and tax credits paid to people of working age has soared from £63billion in 1996-7 to £87billion in 2009-10"

This was the BBC headline, which was just lifted from IDS without explaining further.

Phil said...

Great blog-post!
BBC's willingness to ignore being a news reporter, in favour of spouting pro-government propaganda, is a stain on the Beeb's reputation.

hmm, for a few decades governments have reneged on their duty to try to provide/promote/facilitate employment as near to full employment as possible. Governments have deemed that unemployment is a price worth paying - thus governments choose to set a rate of unemployment which they can afford to sustain (and this was fine by them until the banking sector drained the Exchequer).

Stephanie said...

Another problem with the stance is the assumption that this is an American stance. I don't know how much of the British welfare system is centralized, but the US system is not. Our welfare system can vary dramatically from state to state and even between counties and cities within the same states, as can our minimum wage laws (which the US also has, btw). For example, the needs of the poor (rather, the costs of those needs) are very different in a small mid-western city such as where I live and a big metropolis like Chicago. Even though I only live a few hours from Chicago, the cost of living in Chicago is much, much higher than where I live. Cities tries to compensate for those differences by how much they provide.

I would readily agree that the US needs to work on putting together a much better net for those who fall on hard times (as well as for those born into hard times who have fewer opportunities to get out of them), but any assertion that there is one US approach is very wrong. There is not.

The Goldfish said...

Vic - thank you. It's shocking, isn't it? Please won't someone make statistics a compulsory subject in schools?

Phil - yes, indeed. The next day there were headlines about the increasing unemployment, at which point nobody suggests that more people are unemployed because more people are just getting lazy and leaving their jobs.

Stephanie - Thank you, I didn't know that the US had mininum wage law at all to be honest.

Glynis Jolly said...

Excellent post! Send it to Washington D.C. please. There are so few here in the states who know what is really needed and what can be dumped. I'm sure glad GB has it figured out. I wish we did.

Stephanie said...

The federal minimum wage laws aren't simple, and the variability between states and cities makes it even more complicated, but it does exist.

What I wish we had, which more and more big cities do have, is a living wage. Someone who works thirty to forty hours a week should be able to afford housing, heat, food, clothing and a telephone, but the federal minimum wage doesn't enable that in most small communities, let alone in bigger communities where costs of living are higher. Poverty would be much less of a problem if all businesses had to pay their employees enough to live on.

Ben S said...

The thing that Lawrence Mead always fails to mention is that his Wisconcin experiment in the 90's was actually a failure, and that most people who went through the process of being taken off of US social security and forced into work ended up living below the poverty line - even with state support (tax credits) only 40% lived above the poverty line.

(Love the blog - sometimes anger is good typing-fuel!)

Casdok said...

Well said.

Carl Thompson said...

Great post, and a wonderful blog you have going here!

S. said...

I own a small business in Philadelphia: the minimum wage here is the federal minimum wage of $7.25--more or less £4.50--but the living wage, which depends on how many people are in a household, is $9 for one adult and $27 for a two-adult, two-child family (or $13.50/working adult if both adults work full time). The city just passed an ordinance that would require some businesses that benefit from "city financial aid," (including various tax breaks and development incentives), to pay employees 150% of the federal minimum wage. That would still be less than a living wage for people with dependents, but closer. The law doesn't kick in until July, so no idea how it will play out.

In the US, calling either jobs or workers "minimum-wage" is a good way to disparage them.

Sally said...

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with best wishes

Blake Watson said...

As a person with a disability trying to get off of the system, I think the US (Mississippi) welfare system is something of a black hole. There is much more incentive for me not to work. I wish there was more of a transition scheme in place to gradually decrease my benefits (16 hrs/day of attendant care) proportional to my salary. Instead, there is a salary cap. If I pass it, I lose everything. That de-incentivizes pursuing a career.