The coalition’s increased use of conditionality for claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance/JSA (soon to be Universal Credit) and its tougher financial sanctions for non-compliance are part of a policy trend, dating back to the 1980s, that is underpinned by politicians’ belief that many people prefer benefits to employment. Yet academic researchers insist these politicians’ are misguided; their evidence repeatedly demonstrates that unemployed benefit claimants possess mainstream work values and that the overwhelming majority both want employment and actively seek it. However, academics tend to rely on what unemployed people tell them. In what follows I discuss the findings of my 40 telephone interviews with frontline employment support staff in the summer of 2011.
My respondents worked in all kinds of welfare-to-work organisations, in diverse locations across England, Scotland and Wales; 25 were in ‘employment adviser’ type roles, 11 in employer liaison, and 4 were office managers. Most said that between a quarter and half of their present long-term (over 6 months) JSA claimant clients did not want employment (this finding does not contradict the existing conclusion about the vast majority of unemployed people wanting a job, given that about two-thirds of JSA claimants re-enter employment within 6 months). However, all 40 said that many of their long-term JSA clients remained unemployed because they were too ‘choosy’ in the jobs they were willing to do; most of the 40 said they believed that a majority would enter employment within two months if they applied for a range of relatively unattractive jobs. Thirty-six of the 40 said that there was a particularly difficult group of clients from families and neighbourhoods which had experienced considerable worklessness over ‘three generations’, and who consequently saw claiming out-of-work benefits as normal and morally acceptable.
The only other UK study of welfare-to-work industry employees to focus specifically upon their clients’ attitudes towards employment is Shildrick et al.’s (2012) ‘Poverty and Insecurity’, which also included interviews with unemployed and employed people about their own work attitudes. These authors are archetypal examples of what Alan Deacon refers to as the ‘quasi-Titmuss school’ – a group of left-wing academics who dominate British social policy, are often involved in poverty lobby organisations like CPAG, and strongly object to any criticism of benefit claimants. Shildrick et al. drew the firm conclusion that people ‘love’ working and ‘loathe’ claiming benefits based on what unemployed and employed people said however they completely dismissed their 13 welfare-to-work industry respondents’ comments (which were very similar to what my 40 said) as biased!
While biases and prejudices inevitably influence interview findings, this favouring of one form of research over the other is remarkable. Both forms have their strengths and weaknesses. The professionals have vast experience of their unemployed clients’ job search activity (mine had spent an estimated total of 147,000 hours in the company of the people they told me about), and the unemployed people interviewed might be reluctant to risk losing their income by telling a stranger on tape they do not want a job, even if they believe the risk of being reported to the benefit authorities is tiny. Yet because conclusions like Shildrick et al.’s are pleasing to left-wing people’s ears, they receive little or no critical scrutiny from other social policy academics. In fact, among their book’s many plaudits, Hartley Dean in ‘Critical Social Policy’ (2014) even suggested that Shildrick et al. should have emphasised their finding about the strong work ethic of benefit claimants even more than they did!
When I first published an article about my 40 interviews, the Journal of Social Policy invited mainstream social policy authors Sharon Wright and Greg Marston to write response pieces (see Volume 42 Issue 4). Their main criticism, drawing on Lipsky’s ‘Street Level Bureaucracy’ (1980), was that government propaganda influences front-line staff, leading them to give biased descriptions of their clients. While I accept this happens, I also think that if their clients had shown a fiercely strong commitment to employment, at least some of the 40 would have said so. Tellingly, some said they were shocked by their clients’ attitudes to work, which, they said, had led them to abandon long-standing more positive attitudes towards the long-term unemployed.
My book, ‘Rethinking Unemployment and the Work Ethic’, includes a detailed description of the research findings. Please feel free to email me to discuss any of the issues I have raised (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Any opinions represented within this blog are the authors and do not represent the views of ERSA.