Maybe I’m too Cynical about Benefits

Corin Faife, Urban Times:

For most of the first half of 2012, I was claiming unemployment benefit.

At the Jobcentre I relayed [my voluntary position] to my ‘advisers’—I can only write the word in scare quotes—but far from being enthusiastic, they seemed suspicious that I was taking on work without being paid, and stressed the fact that I could only volunteer a maximum of 16 hours of my time per week without my benefit being cut.

I tried to emphasise that the unpaid work I was doing had a strong chance of leading to a paid position in my chosen professional field, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears. I knew that I was right, and, while I’d be incriminating myself if I said that I worked more than the allotted 16 hours, suffice it to say that I put in the work necessary to become a permanent part of the company. In short, it paid off.

I far too often criticise the benefits system in the UK. It disgusts me when hear of the unemployed hanging around ATMs at the early hours of the morning to receive cash which they’ll spend on alcohol in a few hours. Even if people make good use of the money they receive, if they’re not active, I get frustrated.

But in this account of working for free, even sacrificing benefits to do so, I saw a light. I saw that everyone’s not lazy, and it made me reconsider my views. We shouldn’t scrap benefits for those who aren’t looking for payed work. We should be paying for people to volunteer. Unemployment benefits should encourage people to work, or force people to work. If they don’t, watch them fend for themselves alone.

  • Nick

    “It disgusts me when hear of the unemployed hanging around ATMs at the early hours of the morning to receive cash which they’ll spend on alcohol in a few hours.”

    Yes, that’s what generally happens when you are poor, depressed and have no faith in yourself or society – you drink or take drugs to deal with the unpleasant reality of your situation. Middle class people call this ‘self-medication.’

    “Unemployment benefits should encourage people to work, or force people to work. If they don’t, watch them fend for themselves alone.”

    I really wish you had the experience of poverty that I and my friends have had. Perhaps, one day, you will be on the scrap heap and have such invective hurled your way. Understand that a lot of the poorest have other work to do besides paid labour – often they must look after family or elderly relatives lest they be taken into care. Or, perhaps, they have to deal with the resulting mental issues caused by being unable to find employment that does not leave them worse off.

    Make no mistake, people are being forced into short-term jobs that leave them financially worse off than they would be on just benefits. These jobs end after a few weeks, and result in having to re-claim benefits – a process which can take several weeks more. During which time, these people are financially vulnerable and require the sort of terrible loans we see advertised on TV in order to just pay their rent.

    Then we have the issue of increasing automation and the loss of productive work, a serious issue that will only accelerate. In my work, I am often contracted to create automated systems to put large parts of the workforce out of work, and the scope of this automation is spreading. While it may have started with unskilled labour, more and more I am finding that the systems required are aimed squarely at the managerial classes. We could look at the example of Amazon where warehouse management has been replaced by machines that micro-manage workers, or the increased prevalence of ‘metrics’ in office jobs.

    All this would be fine if new jobs were created as a result of these changes, but they are not. When a small group of people can create systems with low running costs and very little maintenance that put tens or hundreds of thousands out of work, we have a serious problem. Those that have been put out of work neither have the skills for other types of work, and the economy has not the jobs to support them even if they did. Their purchasing power diminishes and – with a significant amount of unemployment – the purchasing power of society at large fails to sustain existing companies.

    This problem can, of course, be solved by accepting that – in the 21st century – paid labour will increasingly be a rarity and that government’s new responsibility is as a mover of capital (by means of investment and a basic income) and that the population as a whole will have to be re-trained regularly, en-mass, to perform the shrinking segment of jobs that automation cannot do. This will require significant investment in arts, sciences and engineering to provide jobs in these non-automated sectors – something the free market in the UK currently refuses to do in any significant capacity.

    Of course, here in the UK, we have approached the crisis in a different manner, by employing ‘workfare’ schemes – by propping up and subsidising an unsustainable view of employment, by creating ‘jobs’ for which people are not properly compensated, providing free labour to large companies, and so driving the relative worth of an average worker down. We do this because we cannot see a way in which society can function without significant employment, and so we attempt to create jobs that would not otherwise exist, and then force the most vulnerable into them – inevitably increasing their financial hardships and increasing the strain on the NHS that has to deal with the physical results of hard labour, or the mental health results of being forced to take work that further impoverishes.

    Even worse is that, counter to Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ these new ‘jobs’ do not help the community at large to provide a social good (and, therefore, enrich the community), such as library work or care of green spaces, but are given to large companies who profit from free labour; acting as modern-day poorhouses.

    Another aspect to your incredibly ill-thought-out sentence is that many people who are now taking JSA were, at some point, employed. Why should they not be entitled to a year or so break from work? That only accounts for a fraction of what they have paid in, after all. Why should anyone have to slave away for 50 years without end? Remember that the most physically strenuous work is often done by the poor, and they will not have the savings to live off if they were to need (both mentally and physically) to take a break from work for a year or so. It’s still cheaper than having them put back together again by the NHS at a later date.

    Ultimately, your comments come from a proposition that can no longer be defended; that full paid employment is necessary, desirable and possible. It is, in fact, none of these.

    In the next 30 years or so, it is not unexpected that the majority of those in developed countries will rely on welfare for their survival. In fact, if we are to include tax credits, this is *already the case* and is only accelerating. Unless we understand that paid labour is increasingly becoming rare and that this does not mean the end to productive work, we are going to face considerable social upheaval. A guaranteed basic income without strings (such as being forced to work low-status jobs) will allow the poorest the time to gain knowledge with which they can help society, be it in scientific research, information tech, entertainment, philosophy, politics, or more down-to-earth things like volunteering at museums, libraries and parks.

    We consider the long-term unemployed to be lazy but, in fact, they are in a trap whereby they do not have control over their own time. They cannot gain knowledge. One of my friends is expected, by the Jobcentre, to spend 30 hours a week looking for work and a further 30 hours a week on a job placement to maintain his benefits. The Jobcentre mandates 30 hours, but balks at someone doing over 16 hours under their own steam. Furthermore, this work placement is over 2 hours away and they will not pay for his transportation – leaving him almost £15 worse off a week. For someone whose JSA amounts to around £70 a week, that is a significant fall. I should note that the travel time is not included in the 30 hour figure.

    It is time we stopped venerating employment but, instead, provide a basic income and focus on socially- and scientifically- productive work, regardless of whether it is paid or unpaid.

    The capitalist drive for efficiency has worked phenomenally, to such an extent that the productivity of both people, machines and systems has resulted in a reduced demand for more people. We can either adapt to this, or suffer the very bloody consequences.

    • Nathan Liu

      Thank you for your comment, but I think you completely misinterpreted my statement. Benefits shouldn’t force people into paid work, they should force people to look for work, and work for free. I sympathise with your situation and those in poverty, even if I cannot empathise with it, and I did not mean to target you or anyone who is having a hard time finding work. I dislike those who exploit benefits, but support those who use them to survive, as long as they’re doing something positive with their time.

      You’ve obviously spent quite some time recounting your thoughts, so if you want to discuss this further, or even submit a post with your point of view, send me a message on the contact page.

  • Alastair Easton

    Yes but the problem with ‘working for benefits’ is that as much as it sounds logical, the whole point of benefits is that they’re not transactions – they are distributed out of genuine need and therefore it would be unreasonable for the state to expect any ‘reward’ for the money. If the unemployed become a source of free labour this removes any incentive to create real jobs or to help fill any vacant positions. It is dehumanising to divide the poor into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ – that in order to be worthy of help you would have to somehow have to forego caring for your children in order to ‘serve’ the state is unworkable. Often it’s not even the state that is served – if companies didn’t have the option of these ‘volunteer’ workers, maybe they’d actually focus on advertising jobs that pay a living wage. Though of course in the case of the UT writer, where he had a totally free choice of whether to volunteer or not, this should be allowed as the work has a genuine and clear purpose.
    Of course I don’t want to see my money spent on alcohol and drugs (I know the only tax I pay is VAT but let’s imagine I’m a taxpayer), but the fact is that this rarely happens. We can try and restructure the system to make sure money can only be spent on what’s necessary, but there is always someone who’s going to exploit it. That’s an evil we have to live with, but its certainly not a reason to demonise those on benefits with the ‘fags and plasma TV’ stereotype, or to discard benefits.

    This sums it up pretty well. I’ve never heard of this website before but it’s a cross post from the Times.