Employers are concerned that a long period on welfare payments, especially for young people, undermines the work ethic and deprives them of “experience with the satisfactions and disciplines of work.”
Systems of welfare payments were introduced, in part, due to fear of social disorder and the crimes that unemployed people would be forced to resort to if they had no incomes.
Governments have tried to strike the right balance between enough welfare to prevent political protest and other disturbances and yet keeping it low enough to ensure unemployed people will take low-income unpleasant jobs. The British Employers Confederation stated in 1942 that welfare benefits “should not be such as to weaken the incentive of the population to play their full part in maintaining the productivity and exporting ability of the country”.
Methods of finding the undeserving welfare receipient who is unwilling to work have been introduced into all English speaking countries and some form of work test seems to be common. More recently several countries have introduced requirements for welfare recipients to work for their benefits, this has been hailed as welfare 'reform'.
Within a year the welfare 'reforms' in the US were being hailed as a great success. Success was defined in terms of reducing the welfare rolls and delivering cheap workers to employers. The average employee did not benefit as the impact of welfare reform was to make their own jobs more insecure and to put downward pressure on their wages, through an increased supply of people desperate for work.
In an upbeat article in Newsweek proclaiming the success of welfare reform, Jonathan Alter, admitted “Yes, homelessness and visits to the food banks are rising a bit in areas with the toughest new laws. But if the economy holds up and the private sector does its part, we’re on the threshold of the greatest social-policy achievement in a generation.”
The new welfare reforms, including compulsory work-for-benefit schemes, are premised on the idea that unemployment has been caused or at least exacerbated by the welfare system rather than factors such as the massive corporate and government downsizing that occurred during the 1980s and 90s. The assumption was that if people left welfare, or didn’t apply, because of tough new rules, then they couldn’t have really needed it. Yet the reality was that many people were forced into taking demeaning jobs at pay levels that left them in poverty, enabling employers to keep wages at these unreasonably low levels.
It is evident that jobs have been created and unemployment reduced in the US by limiting welfare, enabling employers to offer ever lower wages for the unskilled workers. This has created millions of ‘working poor’ and been accompanied by slums, homelessness, crime and drugs. It is not a particularly attractive policy prescription, except for business people and those who serve them. However the US policy prescription of low wages and much a much reduced safety net for those who do not accept them, is being successfully promoted in many English speaking countries.
In Europe welfare has come under attack from business leaders and conservative politicians who wished to emulate the US ‘success’. They argued that the welfare state makes labor too costly, labourers too lazy and taxes too high. Efforts to cut back on welfare in Europe, however, met with stiff public opposition, including “violent labor protests in Italy and massive demonstrations in Germany”.
In Sweden, where there is also an extensive and generous welfare system, the Social Democrats won another term of government in 1998 after promising to expand welfare, after people became upset at welfare cuts in their previous term of office.
The US reforms and their proclaimed success reinforce the wider community perception that people are unemployed as a result of their own deficiencies rather than economic problems created by others. It “shifts the blame for unemployment away from the economy and the Government by placing it firmly on the shoulders of those who are in fact victims of unemployment”. As a spokesperson for the Australian welfare organisation, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, said with respect to the Australian government’s Work for the Dole scheme:
The government’s programs represent and promote the belief that unemployment is a problem because of deficiencies in individuals, like being unmotivated or lacking a work ethic, rather than recognising that there is insufficient demand or growth in the economy to employ those who want to work.
It has been suggested that the work ethic has been replaced by a new ethic “that requires one to have enough resources, financial resources, not to be a burden on other people” but in fact this is really another expression of the work ethic. Work is imbued with a moral value through an emphasis on responsibility and contribution. Work-for-benefit schemes are one of the most recent political expressions of work ethic promotion.