Friday, 3 January 2014

Is welfare conditionality justified?

Conditionality is at the centre of welfare reform.  It underpins everything that the Coalition – and before it New Labour – have done.  Nothing is given away for free in the land of social security: everything is tied up with conditions and consequences. 

The major break with the past came during the New Labour years.  This was when benefits for the unemployed and other ‘economically inactive’ groups - like lone parents and the disabled - became increasingly conditional upon certain behaviour, such as looking for work or participating on welfare-to-work schemes.

The logic of conditionality is twofold.  First, conditionality will improve employment outcomes: use a bit more stick and soon people will be on their bikes.  Unemployed people need more ‘incentives’ to find paid work.

Second, it is only fair that in return for income support, people should have to fulfil certain duties and obligations to the rest of society.  This is the argument for rights and responsibilities: people have the right to help but the responsibility to look for employment.  No one has the right to a ‘life on benefits’ if they are capable of work.

Whilst the first argument is more of an empirical one, the second is moral.  Is it right to ask people to behave in a certain way in return for social security?  Or, alternatively, is income support a social right that the Government should be unable to remove? 

Advocates argue that it is fair to expect the able to seek work and that benefits must be conditional on doing so.  Expecting people to give something back in return for help is a basic tenet of reciprocity; if people share in the benefits of society, then they have a duty to contribute something back.  If we fail to impose these requirements, we risk violating reciprocity and undermining social trust and common bonds. 

There are strengths to this argument: unconditional benefits would allow people to live indefinitely at the expense of others.  Whilst the common retort is that the number of potential ‘free-riders’ would be negligible, ‘unconditionality’ would nevertheless endorse free-riding as socially legitimate. To many people this is both economically dangerous and morally untenable.  Most of us go through life carrying the responsibility to work: if a person is able, it is unfair that the option to evade such responsibilities is made available.

However, the major problem with this argument - and of much of the rhetoric surrounding welfare conditionality - is the disproportionate attention given to benefit claimants.  If welfare support is a contract there is by definition another party involved: the state.

Yet in practice we hear very little about what the responsibility of the state is.  This is crucial: it is blindingly clear that the responsibility to take a job does not exist irrespective of what is being offered to people.  The most extreme example, proposed by the theorist Stuart White, is of a slave society.  Few of us think that in such a society there is a moral duty to work: to do so would be to cooperate in “our own exploitation”.

What the responsibilities of the Government should be are up for debate.  People from the Right tend to consider a job – any job – will do, but many people rightfully expect more.  It is not just about providing any kind of work but the right kind of work: work that can be meaningful, can match a person’s hopes and ambitions and can be married with other aspects of life, such as home and childcare.

So in one sense the Government is right: social security for people who can work should be conditional upon taking up opportunities.  However, it is the nature and environment of these opportunities, and whether they are even available, that is the deal breaker for justifying conditionality.  Does a person with social anxiety have the responsibility to take a job in a busy pub?  Does a lone parent have the duty to work evenings in a call centre?  Does a medicine graduate have the obligation to stack shelves?

Or rather, do people have the right to a labour market that can provide them with fair, appropriate and decently paid work?  If this requirement is satisfied, then it seems there is a strong case for conditionality.  If not, as it actually appears, the case for conditionality is weakened.  The danger then is of a government that exploits conditionality to coerce and to stigmatise.  And of a situation in which people are enforced to oblige in their own exploitation.

This article was originally written for London Student

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