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Column: Who really benefits from the new 'carrot and stick' approach to welfare payments?

New welfare system changes are morally dubious and serve only make the lives of unemployed more unpleasant, writes Tom Boland.

Tom Boland

THE MINISTER FOR Social Protection Joan Burton announced new opportunities and sanctions for the social welfare system; new carrots and new sticks. That the carrots aren’t very wholesome and that the sticks are quite ferocious hasn’t been much picked up in the media so far.

First of all the bright new opportunities: JobsBridge, the government funded intern system has been extended from 9 to 18 months. Effectively it’s a longer bridge, which goes to show that the existing bridge didn’t have any jobs at the end of it – rather like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In JobsBridge, an unemployed person works for a company who may or may not eventually have an opening for them, in exchange for a €50 top up on their dole. Effectively, they are often working for less than the minimum wage, in the frequently vain hope that there will be a real job for them in the future.

The unemployed do not benefit from this system

Who benefits from this system? Clearly, it is employers who get labour for nothing. Furthermore, the implicit threat that real jobs could be replaced by interns is also significant. And though the state has to pay for all of this, the government benefits in that JobsBridge reduces the official numbers of long-term unemployed, even though they don’t actually find jobs.

Over 80,000 people are currently part of publicly funded activation programmes, and therefore not counted on the live-register or in the overall unemployment rate. So Joan & Co look good.

The existing sanction for non-compliance with the Active Labour Market Policies of the social welfare system is a reduction of payment from 188 to 144 per week. This is well below the poverty line. And remember that the unemployed already suffer disproportionately from food and fuel poverty and indebtedness. What is non-compliance? It includes not meeting with officers for assessment, failure to demonstrate job-seeking activities or refusal to take up training or education or even a JobsBridge place. Over 1,500 people have been sanctioned this year to date.

What is “non-compliance”?

The new sanction in the social welfare system is that non-compliance with the system can be punished by a withholding of payments for up to nine weeks. Nine weeks is 63 days, which is approximately how long each of the Hunger Strikers took to die in the maze prison. But of course, the unemployed who are cut adrift for nine weeks have recourse to soup-kitchens and charity and begging! So that’s ok, right?

Of course, the unemployed are receiving benefits from the state, and therefore they should comply with the system. The system is supposed to be there to help them. However, with so many unemployed, and so few job opportunities, surely any help offered will be taken up by sufficient numbers, that sanctions should be unnecessary. Furthermore, the threat of sanctions increase the stress levels of all the unemployed; and the unemployed have twice the national incidence of depression and three times their incidence of suicide. There is no need to kick people when they are down.

Is it ok to cut people off?

But the real moral question here is how we treat those who genuinely do not comply. Beyond those who do not wish to take an absurd JobsBridge internship or be forced to change profession in order to fit in with the current demands of the labour market, it is probable that there are some people who are not genuinely seeking work. They are using tax-payers money and giving nothing back. Is it ok to cut these people off without any means of subsistence?

I don’t think so. At present there are over four thousand people convicted of criminal offences in Irish prisons. None of them are allowed to go hungry. Clearly, inmates have not complied, often in very serious ways, with the laws of the land. The state feeds and houses them at significantly more cost than a basic social welfare payment. In fact, since the state is the primary guardian of the human rights of its citizens, making even non-compliers effectively destitute is surely a legal as well as a moral failure.

These new carrots and sticks will do nothing for the real economy; their real effect is to make the lives of all of the unemployed more unpleasant. It is not ‘Social Protection’ at all.

Tom Boland lectures in Sociology at Waterford Institute of Technology and is co-ordinator of the Waterford Unemployment Experiences Research Collaborative. To read more articles by Tom for TheJournal.ie click here.

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Tom Boland

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