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
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
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.