From welfare to workfare: how the helping hand became a contract

We no longer regard society as having obligations to the poor, but rather the poor as having obligations to society. When and how did this shift take place?

The recent ruling on the cases of Caitlin Reilly and Jamieson Wilson has, rightly, been received with little more than hushed approval. The ruling itself was based on a technicality. This was not, the court concluded, a question of human rights, of the admissibility of supposed forced, or even, slave labour, but one concerning the transparency of legislative prescriptions. Indeed, Sir Stanley Burnton made explicitly clear that the panel’s objections were not based on human rights grounds. Rather, they concluded, it had been incumbent upon the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, according to section 17a of the 1995 Jobseekers Act, to consult parliament before introducing sanctions of the sort he intended.

All things considered, then, this was not exactly a victory for those equating workfare with anterior forms of indentured servitude. The cautious judgment of the Court of Appeal, however, did little to muffle the indignant cries of both Duncan Smith and the right-wing press. The Secretary of State accused Reilly of thinking herself “too good” to stack shelves, later remarking that Sir Terry Leahy had started his career stacking shelves (one would assume Leahy was paid for the service). Graeme Archer, writing for The Daily Telegraph, with a willful insistence on not actually reading the details of the ruling, attacked the ‘activist lawyers’ at the Court of Appeal for ruining any chances of welfare reform. Much in the way of Duncan Smith, Archer made a Tebbitian appeal to Britain’s youth to get on their bikes as he did when, aged 17, he filled pies and lugged salt sacks at an Ayrshire bakery (one would assume he was paid for the service). The ‘infantilism of Cait and Co.’ also stoked the ire of self-professed ‘leftist’ Brendan O’Neill who saw this outrageous ruling as grounds for ‘cutting welfare benefits to all 18 to 25 year-olds’. The culture of ‘welfarism’ pervading the lives of our juvenile job snobs, O’Neill argued, was only too well represented by Reilly’s choice of pretentious and politically provocative neckwear; the ‘Palestinian-style scarf’ she chose to wear clear evidence of her haughtily dismissive attitude towards “chavvy joints” like Poundland.

The reactionary bile of the members of the cabinet and commentariat mentioned above do, however, obscure a more important point. The government’s Work Programme is not an example of modern-day slave labour, however useful such designations may be as tools of protest, but the logical and traceable consequence of a qualitative shift in attitudes towards welfare provision that has taken place over the last two decades.

In response to the February 12 ruling, Duncan Smith was defiant. “I absolutely clearly tell you this”, he said, “people who think it is in their right to take benefit and do nothing for it - those days are over”. Of import in his words is the implicit notion of individual responsibility, of paying something back to the taxpayer and society to whom the welfare recipient necessarily represents a burden and drain. The further implication is, of course, that unemployment is always voluntary, that it is the fault of the individual concerned. David Harvey, in his Brief History of Neoliberalism, characterised the neoliberal argument thus: "Labour... has a ‘reserve price’ below which it prefers not to work. Unemployment arises because the reserve price of labour is too high. Since that reserve price is partly set by welfare payments... then it stands to reason that the neoliberal reform carried out by [Bill] Clinton of ‘welfare as we know it’ must be a crucial step towards the reduction of unemployment".

The reforms to which Harvey refers were enshrined in Clinton’s 1996 ‘Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act’. Central to this transformed understanding of welfare was the notion of a contract between the citizen and the State, one that invoked ideas of individual responsibility and duties on the part of the citizen to a State which had his/her best interests at heart. The transferability of such ideas becomes clear when we look at the policy statements of subsequent governments in the advanced capitalist world. Defending his ‘New Deal’ on welfare, Tony Blair insisted, in typical Third Way style, of “achieving a balance of rights and responsibilities”. In other words, anybody receiving assistance in the form of welfare payments was duty-bound to pay something back to the community of taxpayers supporting them. Similarly, in Australia, Tony Abbott’s ‘Work for the Dole’ programme required welfare recipients to ‘actively seek work, constantly strive to improve their competitiveness in the labour market, and give something back to the community that supports them’. In sum, these changes meant that welfarist notions of universal, needs-based entitlement gave way to what might be termed a ‘workfarist’ market-based approach.

Of course, the demonising discourse of dependency is not something wholly new. Arguments to the effect that the causes of poverty or unemployment can be attributed to individual failings have for a long time been a staple of the political right. What is significant is the manner in which popular representations of skivers, lazy dependents or benefit cheats have become elements of the political mainstream, and of parties both red and blue.

Arguments of the sort put forward during the New Labour years would have been unthinkable to many previous generations of Labour ministers. Indeed, at the outset they were unthinkable to many of the then current crop of Labour politicians. The battle lines were clearly drawn in 1997 when, in an attempt to keep in line with Tory spending plans, the Blair government moved to cut single-parent benefits. A large scale revolt ensued, with forty-seven Labour MPs voting against the Government and over one hundred abstaining. Clive Soley, then Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, presented what was to become a familiar defence of the Government’s renewed approach to welfare. Recognising the “strength of feeling” in the Labour ranks, he nevertheless appealed to the rebels to try to understand the Government’s “long-term aim of providing work for people rather than welfare”. The Blair government would face a number of similar rebellions, as for example in 1999 when trying to introduce cuts to disability benefits and again in 2002 with its proposal to remove child benefits from families with regularly truant children.

Despite early rebellions, such ideas gradually took root in the Labour ranks. The title of James Purnell’s 2008 Welfare Reform Green Paper encapsulates the attitudinal shift to welfare provision outlined above. The proposals contained in ‘No one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility’ were, according to Purnell, “based on a simple deal: more support in return for greater responsibility... We will help people find work, but they will be expected to take a job.” Chris Grayling, then shadow work and pensions secretary, was supportive of the plans if critical of the fact that they had been apparently plagiarised from published Conservative Party policy. Under the plans “virtually everyone” would have to do something in return for their welfare payments.

More recently, the same Chris Grayling attacked the “Polly Toynbee left” for its opposition to the current government’s Work Programme, saying that they “simply do not understand the modern labour market”. In this, it is painful to say, Grayling has a point. For if we were to seek out the underlying causes for the apparent shift from needs-based entitlement to conditional welfare provision, we would have to acknowledge a definite correlation between the rise of neoliberalism and the concomitant move towards workfare. In other words, what we are seeing is not the result of policy fixes imported from the DC beltway but the neoliberal economic outlook of which such schemes are a necessary product.

Jamie Peck, author of Workfare States, has elsewhere argued that if in their inception workfarist ideals were built upon specifically right-wing ideology, they have since acquired a ‘post hoc kind of economic logic’. The workfarist focus on pushing welfare recipients into typically unstable, temporary and contingent entry-level jobs helps to naturalize the flexible labour market conditions which have become the norm in late capitalist societies. So, Peck argues, ‘workfare normalizes contingent work, while contingent work, in turn, facilitates the extension of workfare’.

Of course, failure to accept such a situation will mean punishment. No longer does society owe something to the poor and disadvantaged but the other way round. Or as Jeremy Moss has put it, there is these days a ‘trend in the provision of welfare to treat the obligations of the unemployed to society as prior to, and independent of, society’s obligation to the unemployed’ .Yet we must continue to insist, as various others have done, that this modern welfare logic represents little more than blame avoidance.

We know very well that the measures proposed by Duncan Smith have been shown not to work. A report commissioned by the DWP says as much; the CRESR making very clear that ‘there is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work’, adding that this was especially true in weak labour markets. And yet, the government continues to adopt an ever more paternalistic approach to the unemployed and working poor while, at the same time, doing nothing to alter the economic foundations upon which our ailing labour market rests.

About the author

Christopher Barrie is a student at the University of Oxford writing on arts, politics and culture in the UK and MENA. He is on Twitter as @cbarrie