Politics & Policy

Class War over Workfare

The Left cries, “Jobs, jobs, jobs.” But does it really prefer welfare?

In Britain, the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government has introduced a small change into the welfare system, and all hell has broken loose.

The reform requires the able-bodied unemployed to work as a condition of their drawing welfare. More specifically, it obligates beneficiaries to put in 30 hours a week for eight weeks at private-sector placements, usually in retail. At the end of the eight weeks, the recipients may be interviewed for a permanent position, thus getting themselves onto the job ladder. If jobseekers drop out after the first week, they have their benefits withdrawn.

A version of this system is already in place in Britain, with recipients being required to work for charities or in the public sector. But, now that the government has involved private companies in the scheme, the professional Left has started to scream bloody murder.

It is absurd for it to do so. “Workfare” was the brainchild not of a free-marketer, but of a 1960s American civil-rights leader, James Charles Evers. And in Britain, it was the left-of-center Labour party, and not a Winston Churchill or Mrs. Thatcher, that first introduced it. When the coalition government resurrected the program late last year, prominent figures on the Left welcomed it. Among them was Frank Field, Tony Blair’s minister for welfare reform. Field had argued in 2009 that Labour had failed to bring real reform on the issue. Government’s “most important task now,” he contended, “is to build up a system of workfare so that offers of a job can be made to claimants who are unable to find a job in the open market. The first duty of the community [is] not to provide doles for the able-bodied, but work.”

Workfare has not been a particularly controversial matter in the mainstreams of any of the three major parties, and it is a vote-winner among the electorate at large. But in the tabloids and left-leaning media — and from the ever-loud liberal minority that dominates British public life — the reaction has been predictably hysterical. The British Trades Union Congress called for all private partners to pull out immediately, with General Secretary Brendan Barber complaining that the scheme is “in danger of exploiting participants, . . . poses a real threat to the jobs and pay of existing workers,” and “is not the way to solve the U.K.’s job crisis.” And a group named Public Interest Lawyers, which one can only presume works for precisely the opposite, threatened to take the case to the high court, on the basis that such employment violates forced-labor provisions in the British Human Rights Act.

This group is not alone. “Slavery!” has become the rallying call for the anti-reform pressure group Boycott Workfare. The term has caught on. This argument is self-evidently absurd, given that the workers are being paid. But it is persistent. Indeed, when it is pointed out that slaves, by definition, work for nothing (and certainly not for generous welfare and housing benefits), the rejoinder is that slaves were paid subsistence, too. Why workfare should be regarded as slavery when it involves the private sector but not when it involves charities or the government has not been adequately answered by anyone throwing the epithet around. (After all, slaves may have predominantly worked on private plantations, but they also built the White House and the Capitol Building.) It would be a brave man who tried to contrive a meaningful distinction between these two examples of involuntary servitude — and presumably the bill’s opponents do not mean to suggest that slavery is fine as long as the government does the enslaving — but such things do not really matter. The aim of Boycott Workfare and its ilk is to kill any provision linking work with welfare. And with privately educated Conservatives advocating for it rather than the union-backed and -funded Labour party, an Appeal to Class works wonders.

Sadly, the hysteria is having its intended effect: In response to rising blood pressures in their public-relations departments, several major British retail chains — Matalan (clothing stores), Waterstones (booksellers), Superdrug (pharmacists), and Argos (general-goods retailers) — have already withdrawn. Plans for a boycott of Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, are underway, and protesters successfully closed a branch in Westminster last week. As so often, the private sector quickly backs down when it smells a whiff of trouble.

Dramatically efficacious as it may be to compare Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative secretary of state for work and pensions, to a slaveholder or a Victorian poorhouse master, it is deeply unfair to do so. IDS, as he is widely known, was famously too “quiet” and gentle to lead his own party and was ousted in 2003. He is no class warrior, and he has obvious concern for the poor. He has studied the issue of unemployment for the past nine years at his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, and his work has drawn high praise from across the political spectrum. (The CSJ is staffed by a tripartisan group of parliamentarians.) When IDS came to office in 2010, he focused primarily not on the (considerable) cost of welfare, but on its failure: “Worse than the growing expense,” he contended, “is the fact that the money is not even making the impact we want it to. A system that was originally designed to support the poorest in society is now trapping them in the very condition it was supposed to alleviate.”

As IDS has suggested, private companies are the key to removing people from this condition and ending the cycle that traps them there. It is all very well to require temporary employment in a public body in return for the provision of a welfare check if you wish to furnish temporary relief. But that is no real way to get people onto the employment ladder and out of the mire on a permanent basis.

Brendan Barber is right when he suggests that the jobless will not break the cycle of poverty unless they enter the workforce fully. But this can happen only if the unemployed are put in harm’s way, and are at actual risk of getting such a job. Workfare is a more effective way of doing this than sending out checks with no strings attached or filling the ranks of public make-work schemes. Since the start of 2012, Tesco alone has employed 300 of the 1,400 people who came to its stores as a result of the program. The professional Left, whose refrain has been “Jobs, jobs, jobs” since the recession started, should be mighty careful that it is not cutting off its nose to spite its face.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.


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