Forcing welfare recipients into low-paying jobs or government created make-work schemes is supposed to give them the right ‘work attitude’. According to Kaus, the “whole problem is that there are people who won’t climb up a ‘ladder of opportunity’ even when the economy or the government dangles it in front of their noses” so the solution is to “‘make’ people do things they might not do if they have a check coming every month.”
Work-for-benefit programmes are in reality meant to deter people from being attracted to the ‘good life’ of the welfare recipient:
what’s important is not whether sweeping streets or cleaning buildings helps Betsy Smith, single teenage parent and high school dropout, learn skills that will help her find a private sector job. It is whether the prospect of sweeping streets and cleaning buildings for a welfare grant will deter Betsy Smith from having the illegitimate child that drops her out of school and onto welfare in the first place—or, failing that, whether the sight of Betsy Smith sweeping the streets after having her illegitimate child will discourage her younger sisters and neighbours from doing as she did.
Work-for-benefit schemes are therefore punitive to victims of unemployment, blaming them and their supposed lack of a work ethic for their inability to get jobs, rather than fixing the structural problems that lead to unemployment in the first place. It assumes that the reason they are unemployed is that they are ‘bludgers’, ‘scroungers’ or ‘freeloaders’ who are happy to be dependent on the welfare system.
The deterrence value was also acknowledged by then Australian employment services minister Tony Abbott who says “If work for the dole is a condition of unemployment benefits, work for a wage suddenly starts to look... more attractive.”
Work-for-benefit is rationalised as helping the unemployed, the argument being that the unemployed are better off working than not working and that earning their payments will give them more self-esteem and community respect. In this way the welfare state is transformed into the “Work Ethic State, in which status, dignity, and government benefits flow only to those who work.”
However, such work has a secondary status in the workforce. In this way recipients remain marginal to the workforce. The low wages are necessary to ensure that real jobs are always more attractive so that the incentive to find a real job remains and there is always a reserve of workers available for private employers. Workfare jobs are not real jobs in the sense that there is no career ladder extending from them, and people doing them can’t be promoted for showing skill and initiative.
The work that recipients are given may be not very useful. Alternatively if it is valued work it may displace workers already in the workforce with welfare recipients who are paid considerably less. And there is some doubt as to whether this forced work under degrading conditions offers status and dignity.
Workfare is also supposed to help the unemployed become more attractive to employers, and give them a chance to prove themselves on the job. This reasoning is often also subscribed to by the unemployed themselves. However, the work provides little training. Australian Kirsty Newton described her experience on Work for the Dole which involved “sanding the rust off memorial cannons at the Wollongong Lighthouse”. Karl Gerber, an American welfare recipient points out, “They call it a work experience program, but you don’t need experience to go out and sweep the streets,... It’s not a training programme at all. It’s a kind of slave labor.”
Those who do take part in workfare programmes in the US often work under awful conditions. In 1997 a group of New York workfare participants took the Mayor to court in a class action for failing to provide decent working conditions (Capers v. Giuliani). Workfare workers lacked access to protective clothing, toilets, drinking water and safety training, and often had to work in dangerous situations. In an affidavit Tamika Capers, who was required to clean highways and their verges, stated:
If we need to urinate or move our bowels, we have to squat behind a tree or bush or ask one of our co-workers to hold up a plastic bag to shield us from the passing cars. We have not been given insect repellent, and I am afraid to relieve myself outdoors, because I will be exposed to the many biting insects flying and crawling around us. My stomach cramps from holding my urine. During my menstrual period, there is no place to go to change my pad. I have to wait until the end of our shift, and by then my clothes are soaked with blood.
Anastacio Serrano, who sweeps streets, stated in her affidavit “Because I have no dust mask or eye protection, I suffer from the dust that blows up in my face while I am sweeping. I have glaucoma... the dust gets in my eyes and dries up the solutions. I can hardly see by lunchtime.” Similarly Mery Meijia:
There are also all sorts of plants, maybe poison ivy, that give me rashes... The only things we get for protection are an orange vest, a pair of cotton gloves, and a hard hat. The gloves and the hard hat are filthy, but I am not allowed to take anything home to wash it. They gave out boots for one week in February, but they were all size 12 and did not fit me... When I work, the dust gets in my clothes, in my eyes, and in my nose. When I blow my nose during work the mucus is dark brown because I don’t have a dust mask.
Omar Torres has scars on her legs where she was burned from the splashing of graffiti-cleaning fluid. She was not provided with protection, not even goggles whilst using this fluid. Workers are not provided with lockers to store personal items or food so many go without lunch rather than carry it on their dust bins and garbage cans. They are also often unable to wash their hands before lunch despite having been handling garbage all morning. Sylvia Ruff (age 57) stated in her affidavit:
I always worry about the germs and often I do not eat. And now the weather is hot, I get terribly thirsty on the job, but there is no bathroom to use and I am afraid of having to urinate with nowhere to go. Even if I dared to drink, there is nowhere at the worksite to get water...
Such treatment hardly builds self-esteem and confidence and is clearly punitive. The State Supreme Court ruled that the city was obliged to supply the 5000 workfare people working for the departments of Sanitation and Transportation with training, protective clothing, toilets and drinking water and it stopped welfare recipients being required to do this work till these were basics were provided. However this was overturned on appeal in 1998 following the introduction of legislation ensuring workfare workers have the same protections and complaint procedures as public employees. Workfare workers are appealing this latest ruling.
A coalition of churches, synagogues and non-profit groups in New York refused to take part in the work-for-benefit scheme because of its similarity to slavery. However, despite opposition amongst some religious groups and progressives, work for benefit schemes tend to find favour in the broader community.
Forcing the unemployed to work for their benefits makes welfare payments more acceptable to tax payers who believe they are then getting something for their money, even though it is actually costing them more.
In Canada a 1994 Gallup Poll found that 86% of Canadians surveyed thought it was a good idea to force people on welfare to work. A 1994 survey found that 84% of Americans believed that the welfare system discouraged recipients from finding jobs and 92% said able-bodied people should have to work. Three quarters of Australians surveyed favoured the Work for the Dole scheme.