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Dublin: 22 °C Tuesday 22 July, 2014

Column: We should be supporting our jobless thousands, not punishing them

Our focus should be making Ireland the best small country in the world to be unemployed, says Tom Boland.

Tom Boland

AS THE FORTHCOMING budget looms, it is tempting to speculate on whether or not the government will reduce basic job-seekers benefit, or perhaps announce more targeted social welfare cuts. However, what is already clear is the general direction of government policy around social welfare. And though it will no doubt save money, it is a story that cannot be described simply in terms of balance-sheet figures.

Back in 2005, government policy was broadly in support of a Developmental Welfare State as outlined by the National Economic and Social Council. This model is copied from the Dutch and Danish and seeks to support different individuals in different circumstances (with children, in part-time employment, retiring and so on), while also emphasising training and education for those seeking work.

This year marked a decisive shift in policy with the emergence of the Pathways to Work document, which broadly follows the UK and Australian models of social welfare provision. Exactly what this shift means can be discerned from the name of the new National Entitlements and Employment Service: entitlements and employment are explicitly linked. Benefits will be paid in new Intreo offices, which are a one-stop-shop for making claims and being made ‘job-ready’. Earlier this autumn 900 people were reported to have had their benefits reduced for ‘failing to engage’ with the system.

Failing to engage

Such a policy seeps in much more insidiously than headline cuts. What ‘failing to engage’ with the system means is a lot more nebulous than an overall cut. And the monetary amount of a social-welfare payment is not the whole story: the conditions under which it is given out are also important.

But before we continue, let us clarify one thing: Unemployment is a mass economic problem, not an individual failing. Only a minuscule fraction of those ‘on the dole’ wish to be there. During the Celtic Tiger, only 0.7 per cent of people were unemployed for over a year. In real numbers that is under 30,000 people. And even these cannot be presumed to be the ‘scroungers’ or ‘sponges’ which haunt our imagination. I myself was unemployed from 2006 to 2008. The half a million on the dole or on training courses are people who want to work.

Pathways to Work sets out a series of steps to deal with people who are unemployed. These include the assignment of a specific case-worker to oversee the job-seeking efforts of the unemployed ‘clients’, participation in mandatory group engagement and individual interviews. The ‘client’ is assessed, directed and reminded of their obligation to seek and accept ‘suitable’ work. If they do not, their benefits may be reduced.

Low quality jobs

In terms of moving people off the dole queue, this system is effective. By the increased surveillance and pressure on benefit claimants, more people will be forced into low quality jobs. So what? What this means is that employers who offer low pay for work in poor conditions are aided by pressure from the state; most ironically by the Department of Social Protection – and in the UK and Australian example it also could be private companies.

Furthermore, there are half a million on the dole, but very few opportunities. Hence, thousands of people pursue jobs which they are mathematically unlikely to get. So what? The claimant must pursue constant rejection – even acknowledgement of applications is rare – a task that is dispiriting, and places the blame for joblessness on individual shoulders. It is a Sisyphean search for a four-leafed clover.

Look at it from the point of view of the job-seeker. The new system explicitly contractualises benefits, so that they only deserve social welfare if they are actively seeking work. They must constantly seek for something that is unlikely to occur, and show evidence of this in order to go on living. Sociological research in the UK and Australia links this to increased stress, poor quality of life and depression. Another consequence in Ireland will be higher emigration.

Alternatives

That the government must save money somewhere is not something I wish to discuss at length here. Two better ways are defaulting on the bank debt and introducing a higher tax band.

Weighing the lives of those who have lost their jobs in terms of a balance sheet is not neutral realism. It is to surrender to a stark vision of a world governed by nothing but economic forces. The government strategy is premised on the economic calculus of getting the long-term unemployed ‘back to work’ because they lose skills, are not ‘job-ready’ and therefore drain resources rather than stoke growth. Similarly, the strategy is to favour full-time over part-time work, to maximise production and spending – a direct consequence of this is that part-time work will be calculated against the dole on the basis of a five day rather than six day working week from January first.

However, criticism is easy to dismiss with the reply ‘there is no alternative’ (‘in the reality of the situation we find ourselves in’). Therefore, I would make several concrete suggestions.

Firstly, far more people want to work than to shirk. Therefore the resources of monitoring Pathways to Work, including case workers, special advisors and so on, would be far better expended in dynamic public services, for instance, funding the arts would be more economically beneficial, as it benefits the local economy and boosts tourism, and national morale. The Social Welfare system should revert to giving benefits to everyone who needs them, irrespective of ‘engaging with the system’.

Secondly, part-time work should be positively encouraged and favoured by the welfare system. Part-time work allows a better life balance, so that people can care for their children, their community, and their elders. Where society steps in, the state doesn’t have to provide services. In addition, employment law should be altered to allow employees to job-share easily, with similar results.

Thirdly, the government could incrementally reduce the length of the working week. When the French did this, productivity went up. The overall effect can be greater numbers in employment overall. However, the most important thing is not success in the great game of economics. It is how we treat each other.

There will be definite human consequences to this shift in policy. I think the challenge is for us is to make Ireland the best country in the world to be unemployed.

Tom Boland Lectures in Sociology at WIT and is co-ordinator of the Waterford Unemployment Experiences Research Collaborative.

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