Thursday, 7 February 2013

Is workfare really demoralising?

Workfare is a much disputed term.  In the strictest sense, it refers exclusively to work experience type programmes that unemployed people are required to take part in as a condition of social security: 'work for benefit'.  At a broader level, critics use workfare as a catch-all term to describe a wide range of welfare-to-work measures.

Whichever definition we use, the campaign against conditionality in the benefits system - spearheaded by groups such as Boycott Workfare - has come alive in the past year.  The catalyst was the public and media furore in February 2012 that accompanied the 'revelations' around Tesco's involvement in a scheme.

The various campaigns against 'workfare' often make certain assumptions.  In particular, that being placed on a workfare scheme is degrading and demoralising.  Critics often use human stories about the effect that compulsory referral has had on an unemployed person's morale and wellbeing.  The argument is that workfare makes the unemployed feel even worse than they do already.

There is no doubting the integrity of some of the claimants who have publicised their workfare journeys and the harmful experiences they've had.  However, to what extent are we exposed to a broad range of workfare stories?  Or, alternatively, are we merely hearing the voices of a small, vocal, well-educated and articulate minority of workfare participants?  Could workfare have different effects for different groups of people?

Data I'm looking at for my doctoral work support this view: that how workfare makes us feel - whether it makes us happier or unhappier - depends upon how well educated we are.  The data come from the Annual Population Survey 2011-12.  To clear this up, let's first look at the average level of 'life satisfaction' for selected groups within the labour market.  The higher the score, the higher the satisfaction.

Average life satisfaction score by labour market status

Employed : 7.52
Self-Employed: 7.53
Unemployed: 6.37
Welfare-to-Work: 6.55

As is clear, those in work - whether employed or self-employed - have significantly higher life satisfaction than those who are either unemployed or on welfare-to-work schemes.  This is not surprising; lots of research has shown that being in work is good for your general wellbeing and being out of work isn't.  Welfare-to-work participants have slightly higher life satisfaction than the unemployed, but not by too much.

However, let's next look at the welfare-to-work group more closely and separate it out by highest level of education.  Doing so will tell us whether the relationship between workfare and life satisfaction is similar for all participants irrespective of how educated they are.

Average life satisfaction score for welfare-to-work participants, by highest qualification level

Higher Education: 5.55
A-Levels: 6.30
GCSE: 6.66
Other Qualification: 6.71
No Qualifications: 7.54

The results are stark and the pattern is clear.  For people on welfare-to-work programmes who have been through higher education, life satisfaction is very low.  Much lower in fact than it is for the average unemployed person.  For workfare participants with degrees, then, the campaigners look right: workfare is demoralising.

However, workfare isn't as demoralising for other groups.  In particular, for workfare participants with no qualifications, life satisfaction is relatively high.  It's even around the same level, for example, as a person in paid work.  This strongly suggests that the effect of workfare on a person's level of life satisfaction is heavily dependent upon their education level.  

This evidence suggests that the stories we hear about welfare-to-work are unrepresentative of all participants. And in a digital age, when we increasingly consume information about policy through the internet, this is a cause for concern.  Online policy stories are often snapshots delivered by particular groups: the well-educated, the articulate, the confident.  Campaigning for policy change based upon the experiences of such vocal groups is a dangerous pursuit; especially for those who claim to defend the disadvantaged.


  1. This is highly dubious.

    That a few, disparate people (likely conditioned by society and the anti welfare pro work mentality) might be content to earn nothing for their work is absolutely no justification for workfare.

    This is a scheme that destabilises the contract between individual and employer. The working man has nothing to barter with but his ability to work. Once that is eradicated, and this awful government is doing its level best to make that happen, he has nothing. How can he then support himself in a capitalist system? If he isn't being paid for the work he does, how does he buy the things he needs to survive?

    This is an insidious disgusting scheme that people should oppose on principle. Once we start down this road there is no turning back and the damage will be incalculable. If you are support of that then god help you.

  2. Thanks for the reply, despite the way in which you voiced it.

    A couple of points in response.

    1. You seem to think I'm talking about one particular scheme. I'm not - the schemes in question cover all 'government training schemes'. These range from the type you consider 'disgusting' (I'm assuming the Tesco type of placements) to ones that are more focused on skills and training. I've used the term 'workfare' as a catch-all term for welfare-to-work, as most people do. I'm not for one minute suggesting that everyone who is unemployed be put into supermarkets to work for free. What I am suggesting is that for some unemployed people - especially those who are long-term unemployed or have few skills - being on a welfare-to-work programme might be preferable to doing nothing at all.

    2. I accept that the link between better life satisfaction and welfare-to-work might be due to the way people are 'socially conditioned' to think about work and unemployment. But then that's also true of everyone who's in work and who has better life satisfaction as a result. This is a debate about the way in which work is socially constructed and was really beyond the scope of a blogpost.

    3. I also accept that the way in which some of these schemes have been designed can skew relationships between people and employers. But then this is an issue about designing a programme well, so that is genuine work experience and not a substitution for real labour.

    1. I think the way i voiced it is entirely in keeping with what is happening. You need to realise that there is a war going on. This government is destroying the welfare system; it is systematically eroding people's very lifelines under the tired spin of 'fairness' and 'paying down the deficit'. It is neither fair nor paying off anything. The government in cahoots with the media has demonised the poor (including many working people) and the unemployed and, most odiously, the sick. Arguing that, and without much evidence, a few people might well enjoy their workfare experience and using that to suggest that workfare isn't a problem is IMO dangerous.

      1. the government is hiding workfare - slavery in all but name - under the guise of training schemes. It does this for legal reasons as well as to dress up the reality. By labvelling it as training or experience it can get away with forcing people into jobs that pay no wage, never mind whether people want these jobs. This is a world apart from someone perphaps volunteering for a charity shop where they know up front what is happening (and there is a lot to qestion in the third sector as well).

      2. it's not work if you aren't getting paid, particularly if it's forced. That's slavery.

      3. if you want to give people genuine experience then offer them something worthwhile and pay them. In fact better yet just employ people. There is nothing beneficial about workfare, not to the individual nor to society. Casting out workers and then rehiring them for nothing on the workfare is happening now and if affects all of us.

  3. This is quite a flawed analysis of the data (it's a shame that the data isn't available easily to scrutinise immediately.)

    For a start whether something is demoralising or not is a temporal thing, not a snapshot. The question isn't whether those with no qualifications are happier than others with different achievements, but whether those who have been on workfare for multiple months/years (obviously future data will be needed for this) develops a trend of upward, rather than downward life satisfaction

    Then there is the fact that yes, those who have no qualifications are happier if involved in workfare than those highly educated. What is their life satisfaction as people who were unemployed/self-employed/employed?

    And finally let's not forget the very subjective nature of life satisfaction, which is why we *must* compare within the constrains of a single set of parameters over time, and not against each other. It could well be those without education have more self described life satisfaction than those with full education as employed people...but they could still be "less happy" by comparison, it's why it is such a dubious metric in the first place!

    You simply cannot say what you have with any authority, based on the data you've presented :)

  4. Hi. I'm not too sure why this is a flawed analysis. I don't make any claims of causality because, as you say, this is a snapshop based on cross-sectional data. All we have is an association between welfare-to-work participants with no qualifications and what seems like a relatively high level life satisfaction.

    In response to your other point, I've had a quick look back at the data. The average life satisfaction for all of those with no qualifications is 7. The average for those with higher education is 7.6. So we know that welfare-to-work participants from these two groups have quite different life satisfaction scores compared to their group as a whole. As I said, we don't know that anything causal is happening: but we have an idea that something is going on!

  5. I have no problem with the analysis. But I find myself asking this: is the real question about any Workfare programme whether it leads to real work? If a person is pleased to feel valued and engaged on a work programme but then find no job at the end, the? what's the poin? A persons' hope is built up (they are happy) and then it is dashed as there is now job at the end (very despondent). Are you asking this more fundamental question Daniel?

    1. Of course, two good points. First, impact of welfare-to-work on life satisfaction is - for most people - not the most important outcome to consider. Second, even if they promote life satisfaction, could they be counter-productive in the long-term if no jobs are found?

      On the first point, no I am explicitly not looking at economic outcomes (e.g. re-employment, wage levels etc.). There is lots and lots of evidence on the effects of welfare-to-work on re-employment, so I wouldn't be adding anything new. Rather, my research question is whether or not these programmes promote a better 'environment' for unemployed people compared with 'doing nothing'.

      On the second point, this is a good question I should try and look at if the data are there. It would be interesting to know whether welfare-to-work interventions could actually end up harming wellbeing if they don't end up in jobs. Something to think about it. As a piece of guesswork, I would argue that happier people might be more motivated to find work. Therefore, interventions that boost people's wellbeing and motivation whilst they're unemployed are important tools for not just improving people's wellbeing, but boosting the rate at which they return to work.

  6. Is workfare demoralising? I certainly have an opinion on that. Little can be more demoralising than performing tasks and taking instructions without being able to support yourself/your family as a direct result.

    Yet I think a more important question is: Should it be demonstrated that workfare is not demoralising, would workfare therefore be desirable to society and/or the individual? I do not believe so.

    The individual worker does not receive anything for his/her time and effort and is effectively in work and yet still unemployed, but there is much more to it than that. This is a job that exists - a role that benefits a business by enabling the business to make more money in some way. The business is thus getting something for nothing. Other businesses do not have that luxury and have to pay for their human resources. Or to look at it another way, the taxpayer is paying part of a business's wage bill. Meanwhile other workers are being undersold. What could be a valuable paid position for someone becomes unavailable to jobseekers.

    Workfare demonstrates that there is work out there to be done, and this work is suitable for the unemployed. So let's make that work into jobs that are appropriately paid.

  7. Thanks for the comments and your thoughtful points. I appreciate that whether or not welfare-to-work interventions improve things like wellbeing is only one thing to consider in the design and implementation of these programmes. As you say, they have to be defended morally and ideologically too. And also by their impact on the labour market and other jobseekers.

    My basic argument is that we need a more holistic view of labour market interventions for unemployed people (especially for those furthest away from the labour market) that considers their impact on people's health and wellbeing rather than just whether they're any good at getting people back into work.

  8. Correct me if I am wrong but you appear to be saying that you feel workfare schemes which develop skills are a good thing? Personally I am against all forms of unpaid work unless an individual has volunteered their services entirely without any form of duress or intimidation (such as workfare provider / DWP manipulation and sanctions). That aside I am intrigued at how you have come to your conclusions. Do you have accurate figures showing many people have attended workfare schemes and left with approved job skills / qualifications. And how many of these people managed to attain full time employment through these new skills? It is important to remember that the whole purpose of workfare schemes is supposedly to help people find full time employment. If it was to vaguely motivate people, then I would argue that there are far more effective ways of doing that than making people work for nothing

    1. Hi. Sorry, but I don't think I have made any of the claims that you have said I have in your comment re: workfare and skills. I'm not really sure how you have interpreted my article as such.

      My article is essentially saying that for those who are furthest from the labour market, welfare-to-work schemes appear to have positive life satisfaction effects. I make no claims about the schemes' effects on labour market outcomes. If you're interested in the economic effects of workfare schemes there is a whole literature I can recommend if you email me:

    2. Fair dos but I will stand by my last sentence that there are far more effective ways (and ironically cheaper to the taxpayer) to improve a person's life than making them work for nothing. I am seriously struggling to understand how you have arrived at the conclusion that welfare to work schemes appear to have positive life satisfaction effects. I am making the bold assumption that you are not living independently totally reliant on state benefits such as JSA. I am and find it impossible to pay all my bills and live on £71 a week without "doing away" with things like one or two meals a day or heating. How younger people manage on even less is beyond me. I cannot begin to imagine how my day to day existence would be improved by adding anything up to 30 hours of unpaid work into this survival mix. It would probably have the reverse effect. Just one reason is that in the winter months I would be going to work cold and hungry but I suppose I could always look forward to the summer months when I would just be going hungry

  9. Hi Kevin. The conclusion I arrive at isn't that welfare-to-work have positive life satisfaction effects but rather two points:

    1. For CERTAIN unemployed people, welfare-to-work might have positive life satisfaction effects. I come to this conclusion because that's what the data suggest. The life satisfaction score for welfare-to-work participants is relatively high if they have no qualifications.


    2. I can't claim from these numbers what TYPE of welfare-to-work programmes might be good/bad. The dataset lump all the programmes into one category. In the future, I'll be looking at differences by the type of programme people are on. My guess at this point is that different types of programme will have different effects. 'Work-for-you-benefit' placements at Tesco, for example, might be have different effects to a training and skills course.

    I believe you when you say you imagine participating on one of these schemes might have the reverse effect for you. I even say that in the article, welfare-to-work looks like it might have a detrimental effect for certain groups, e.g. those who are highly qualified.

    If you're interested in this research here's a summary of my project:

  10. Hi Dan,

    I won't comment on some of the more general assumptions around this topic, because I think you can probably imagine what my position on a lot of them would be and don't think they'd be particular helpful for your study.

    However, i thought i'd comment briefly on your analysis. I'm not sure the data quite shows what you are claiming it does, as there are some key figures missing. With the inclusion of some extra figures it could possibly show what you are claiming here, or it could show the opposite, so it might be a fruitful line of inquiry.

    The analysis doesn't take into account the general spread of wellbeing across education levels in other employment status groups. It therefore is not clear to the reader whether workfare has anything to do at all with the difference you are looking at. (I know you say that you are not claiming causality, but without this information it is questionable whether there's even any relevance at all to the figures).

    I will give an example to show what I mean. If the (weighted) figures were to look broadly like this, then your interpretation would appear to be the right one:

    Employed Self-employed Unemployed Welfare-to-work
    Higher Education 8 8 8 5.55
    A-Levels 7 7 7 6.3
    GCSE 6 6 6 6.66
    Other Qualification 5 5 5 6.71
    No Qualifications 4 4 4 7.54

    (I think this would also be true if figures were broadly similar across all education levels for the other employment groups - e.g. if the first three columns were all just 6's)

    If, however, the figures were to look like this, there would seem to be no evidence at all for your claim - this would be simply a more general trend that exists across the whole population inclusive of the workfare subgroup:

    Employed Self-employed Unemployed Welfare-to-work
    Higher Education 5.55 5.55 5.55 5.55
    A-Levels 6.3 6.3 6.3 6.3
    GCSE 6.66 6.66 6.66 6.66
    Other Qualification 6.71 6.71 6.71 6.71
    No Qualifications 7.54 7.54 7.54 7.54

    Further, if the figures were to look like this, the very opposite of your claim would be the correct one:

    Employed Self-employed Unemployed Welfare-to-work
    Higher Education 7 7 7 5.55
    A-Levels 8 8 8 6.3
    GCSE 9 9 9 6.66
    Other Qualification 10 10 10 6.71
    No Qualifications 11 11 11 7.54

    I think it would also be useful to know what the population sizes are for each of these groups, and if these trends have come out as statistically significant.

    Hope that makes sense!

    1. tried to preview but accidentally posted - i tried to do the figures as tables but obviously didn't work... doh!

  11. Hi Chris,

    Good questions. Here are the numbers in the order you've used (employed, self employed, unemployed, W2W):

    HE: 7.6 7.6 6.4 5.6
    A-Levels: 7.5 7.5 6.5 6.3
    GCSE: 7.4 7.4 6.4 6.7
    Other: 7.5 7.4 6.1 6.7
    No Qual: 7.6 7.4 6.3 7.5

    So as you can see that it looks as if there is an interaction between welfare-to-work and education level. The effect of labour market status on life satisfaction is pretty similar for all education levels except W2W. I should have put the full table in the blog to make it clearer. This is a large survey (n=165592) with 231 welfare-to-work participants. A larger sample of W2W participants would obviously be better but by the standards of other surveys this is actually quite large. But it is still an important limitation. In the regression model I've used the interaction between W2W and education level is statistically significant.

    On the substantive issues of course we will have disagreements. I don't want to make it seem that I support the current government's workfare programme though! My broad stance is that I think providing interventions and programmes for unemployed people is important; not just for getting them back into work but also for wellbeing and health. But I also think the form of intervention matters a lot: both in terms of getting better outcomes and for ideological reasons. The things I think are most important are the degree of compulsion (if at all), that programmes are aligned to people's genuine work ambitions, that they provide people with new skills and that they bring some of the social benefits that paid work does. I think this is perhaps why it seems those with HE degrees are miserable on W2W programmes.

    1. Without being utterly stereotypical, the problem here is that we don't know other social correlations that happen to occur with educational attainment. To me it seems obvious that someone educated to HE standard is going to be utterly unhappy with being put in to workfare (essentially in a shelf stacking role, despite being professional standard in another field), while someone that is without qualification may be more likely to be seeking *any* full time role, and workfare placements will mimic those opportunities and, in some (very few) cases provide a route to employment.

      But there are other factors to what is a happiness rating here. Where did those educated to HE start out before becoming workfare workers? Do they have a mortgage they're expected to keep up payments on? Kids with school fees? Do they have partners that they now feel guilty for being a lesser provider to the household unit?

      Those without any educational attainment may have similar worries, but they may not be as pronounced, may not culturally be as significant in the peers and family that surround them.

      In short, the above only becomes relevant when we can normalise for the cultural and social differences, and inherent lifestyle and life achievement aspirations, of the individuals in each sub group.

      I don't doubt the stats in their raw state, though as I have said before (and you have too I believe) there needs to be a timeline trend before you can truly test whether something is demoralising or not anyway; but even just using these stats "as is", we can't at all suggest that the situation of workfare isn't demoralising, only that for those without educational attainment it is no less demoralising than their general life situation when employed anyway.

  12. Hi Daniel,

    Very interesting blog, congrats. I'd be interested to know how you plan to measure and collect data on the differences between the different types of workfare schemes.

    I think your post points to a common theme with self-rated interval scale satisfaction data. That is that how satisfied you are with a particular aspect of your life is often related to your expectations. And in this case these expectations seem to be related to education. So degree-educated people perhaps expect to be working challenging or higher-status jobs, and are disappointed with their workfare experience, whereas those with no qualifications are more satisfied with the work that they are made to do. With this are mind, I've two points.

    The first is whether the satisfaction measure can capture what it means for work to be demoralising. For example, certain types of work environment could be bad for wellbeing, whether or not the people that work in them are dissatisfied. I'm thinking of the sort of theory that Michael Marmot puts forward (are you familiar with it?), which would say that people low down the hierarchy in certain forms of low quality jobs would experience negative psychosocial wellbeing effects relative to those in better quality jobs, even if they are satisfied with those jobs given their expectations. So we could say that even though workfare is more satisfying than being inactive and on the dole, it is demoralising in other ways that are not captured by the satisfaction data.

    Secondly, a sort of moral point that follows from that, just because someone is satisfied with workfare doesn't mean that we should conclude that it's good or right for them. Given that people's expectations influence their satisfaction, we might want to question the worth of satisfaction scores of someone whose poor life experiences and low expectations lead to a relatively high satisfaction score. If a slave is more satisfied dancing for his master than ploughing the fields, we should be wary of concluding that it's okay to let him keep dancing. I think this is a general problem with relying too heavily on subjective wellbeing data to dictate policy (I'm sure it's one you're aware of but I thought the point was worth making).

    I met your friend Jenny Hoolachan yesterday in Edinburgh. We're both on placement working for the Scottish Government. She mentioned you and you blog. I'm at Manchester University looking at democracy in the workplace and its effects on wellbeing, I'll send you an email, it'd be really good to chat.


  13. Hi James,

    Thanks a lot for your reply and for the points you've made. I'll take each one in turn as they're also issues I've been thinking about.

    1. Re: measuring different workfare schemes. The dataset I've used here (APS) also has information on what specific programmes people are on. As the sample size of welfare-to-work participants is (relatively) big here, it's possible to categorise these participants by the type of programme they're on. I don't know if you're familiar with Bonoli, but I plan on drawing upon his typology: In the main, I'm interested in comparing the effects of two different categories: a) those either on skills/training/work experience placements and b) those on some sort of accelerated job-matching scheme like the Work Programme. It'd also be useful to differentiate by degree of compulsion, but I'll have to look into that more.

    2. Good point re: the limitations of what the life satisfaction variable tells us. Another advantage of the APS is that they look at four distinct measures of wellbeing: life satisfaction, life worth, happiness and anxiety. My early analysis suggests the effect of welfare-to-work varies according to which measure we are analysing. For example, it is particularly strong for 'happiness', yet particularly weak for 'anxiety' (even some evidence W2W participants are more anxious than the openly unemployed). This suggests welfare-to-work's effects on wellbeing are complex.

    3. Re: your point about the moral case for justifying welfare-to-work. I completely agree. The more theoretical/philosophical bent of my PhD will focus on these debates. As a start I discussed it briefly in an earlier blog:

    Yeah it'd be great to meet up and talk about these issues. I don't know if Jenny mentioned but I live in Manchester (Didsbury), so get in touch:

    1. Thanks for your reply Daniel. I'm not familiar with Bonoli, but I'll have a look. You could get into some really interesting detail when it comes to differentiating characteristics of the work unemployed people are placed on (unfortunately there's never enough time on a PhD!).

      I'm really interested in your finding that workfare might increase anxiety compared to being unemployed. This would link very directly to Michael Marmot's work. Basically his theory says that a lack of control over your working life (whether that's through being told what to do all the time by your boss and not having much control over your work life, feeling overwhelmed by job demands, or not receiving adequate reward for your work efforts) causes stress and that over time this stress causes mental and physical health to deteriorate. His argument suggests that certain forms of workplace hierarchy are bad for wellbeing because those lower down the hierarchy experience a lack of control over their worklife and increased stress. His empirical work suggests that there is a gradient in wellbeing outcomes from the top to the bottom of the workplace hierarchy, so that, other things being equal, the lower down the hierarchy you are the more likely you are to fare badly in all sorts of wellbeing outcomes. He also finds evidence that this argument generalises to wider society. For example, other things being equal, those who are economically worse off (lower down the social hierarchy) fare worse in wellbeing outcomes than those who are wealthier - and this holds from the top to the bottom. He argues that more equality is a means to rectify this.

      I'm wondering if there might be features of the workfare programme, such as being compelled to take part on threat of losing benefits, or being placed in low quality jobs where people have little autonomy in their work and are always told what to do, that are causing an anxiety reaction in participants.

      Great you're really close to me, I'm in Fallowfield. Obviously I'm up in Scotland at the mo but I'm back in May so can meet then. I'll drop you an email.