Workfare: the practice is as bad as the principle

Over at Liberal Democrat Voice it all kicked off in response to a post noting that in 2008 Labour under James Purnell changed JSA in a way that is very similar to IDS’s recently trailed proposals for compulsory unpaid work for long-term benefit claimants believed to need reconnecting with the labour market. Much of the extensive comment that followed the post was directed less at the question of whether Labour are no better than the Tories, but at whether the principle embodied in these proposals are acceptable to liberals, of whatever flavour.  In The requirement to work looks imminent – why not locate it all in one place? I offered some brief comments on that issue.

But clearly this isn’t just an issue of principle.

We can equally ask, leaving principle aside, does it work in practice? While one might find this sort of proposal morally repugnant – and many liberals do because they see it as punitive and smacking of “slave labour” – the case would be harder to answer if coercive measures of this type are demonstrably effective.

As with other simplistic ideas – such as “prison works” – the evidence in favour of the punitive approach turns out to be less compelling than the advocates would wish.

Liberal Conspiracy, via New Start magazine, has drawn attention to a piece of research by academics at Sheffield Hallam University, which is nestling in the Department of Work and Pensions own archives. In A comparative review of workfare programmes in the United States, Canada and Australia, originally published in 2008,  Richard Crisp and Del Roy Fletcher provide a brief overview of the effectiveness of workfare schemes in reducing welfare caseloads and improving employment outcomes. An extremely high level summary of their conclusions would be that there isn’t a lot of evidence either way, but what evidence there is points to the answer “not really very effective”.

More specifically, the authors found that it is hard to attribute reductions in welfare caseloads (in US and Canada) to workfare because, on the one hand,  other welfare reforms were put in place at the same time and, on the other hand, economic growth was removing people from the pool of unemployed labour anyway. Yet caseloads may be reduced by workfare because it has a deterrent effect and people cease to claim before they become subject to it. That might reduce the claimant counts. But it does nothing to ensure that citizens secure an acceptable standard of living.

The authors similarly found limited evidence that the workfare approach increases the likelihood of finding work. And the evidence suggests that it is least effective for those who have multiple barriers to work. Which would appear to be precisely those the IDS proposals are targeted at. Workfare is also less effective in weak labour markets. That is perhaps no great surprise in itself, but highly relevant to current debates.

The authors also found that there were high levels of non-participation in mandatory activities in some workfare programmes. It seems to me to be important to reflect upon this point. How is the government going to propose to police this type of mandatory voluntary activity (if you’ll excuse the oxymoron)? One would presume that without significant resources devoted to monitoring compliance the system will creak and possibly fall over. But is now the right time to be thinking about creating an expanded cadre of inspectors?

Finally, Crisp and Fletcher note that subsidised job schemes, that offer a transition in to work, can be more effective in delivering positive employment outcomes than schemes that require claimants to work in return for benefit payments.

Clearly this is only one piece of evidence in a complex debate (those interested in something meaty to chew on regarding the politics of this issue might like to track down Jamie Peck’s 2001 book Workfare States) . But, at the very least, it is mightily inconvenient for IDS  that the evidence base available to the government does not give an unambiguous underpinning for current policy thinking. For those coalition partners of the orange persuasion, who should already be sceptical at the level of principle, this should give further pause for thought.  But I guess that presupposes that the government is looking for policy informed by evidence rather than undiluted ideology.

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