In most developed countries, people who are unable to find work are given "benefits" or "welfare" money to support them whilst they are out of work. Traditionally, people are not required to do any work in return for this money.
In the US, "work-fare" was developed as an alternative to this. Under workfare models, welfare recipients are obliged to perform some work or undergo training in exchange for their welfare payments. There is generally a period of grace at the start of a term of unemployment, during which such work is not obligatory. Advocates argue that the model prevents the dependency culture that serves to lengthen unemployment and simultaneously provides skills to give welfare recipients a better chance of returning to work. Critics however maintain that workfare schemes are harmful to participants and do little to help them find jobs and get off welfare.
Workfares offer the unemployed opportunities to develop skills to work their way out of poverty. Productive work raises the expectations of those involved by increasing their self-respect and provides them with more confidence in their abilities. It also develops skills associated with work, such as time keeping, taking and giving instructions, working in a team, accepting responsibility and prioritising. Such skills may seem mundane but they are very valuable to employers and their absence among the long-term unemployed is a key reason why they find it so hard to gain jobs. Individuals who are currently working are also more attractive to potential employers than those who are unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed. The evidence suggests Workfare is a success; studies of Workfare in Maryland found that 75 per cent of those who left welfare had earnings within 2.5 years1
.1: Kaus, M. (2000, April 16). Now She's Done It. Retrieved July 19, 2011, from Slate
Workfare schemes are of little use if there are no jobs out there for people to do– something which is an issue of wider economic management. Often the skills which employers are really demanding are literacy, numeracy and familiarity with modern information technology, which menial make-work tasks are unlikely to provide the unemployed with. Far better to invest in proper education and training schemes instead. Even if such skills might be developed through workfare schemes, will forcing people into such work really mean they get the benefits? Most of the long-term unemployed are older, made redundant from declining industries; they do not lack skills but suffer instead from ageist prejudices among employers. Finally, if the ‘workfare’ jobs that unemployed people are being forced into are real jobs that need doing, then they should simply be employed to do them in the normal way (either by the state or by private companies)
Making the unemployed work for their welfare benefits calls the bluff of those claiming benefit but not really looking for jobs. Such scroungers include the incurably lazy, those who are defrauding the taxpayer by claiming welfare while holding down a paying job, and those who are working in the black economy. Furthermore, workfare schemes require applicants also search for work whilst completing the scheme1. Moving from a traditional something-for-nothing welfare scheme to a workfare system stops all these individuals from being a burden on the state, cutting welfare rolls very rapidly and allowing the government to concentrate upon assisting the truly needy.
The number of people defrauding the system is very small (only 0.007% of the total cost of the benefit system). The majority of people on benefits are seeking work. They will be hindered in so doing, because instead of applying for work, attending interviews and developing relevant skills they will be forced to attend their workfare scheme. Thus, people will remain on benefits for longer, costing the government more in the long term.
Society also benefits from the work done by those on workfare schemes: These might include environmental improvement in local communities, service to assist the elderly and disabled, and work for charities or local authorities. In many cases the labour they provide would not have been available in any other way, so the addition they make to everyone's quality of life is a welcome bonus to the scheme. Furthermore, a 2011 study in Denmark found a 'strong and significant crime reducing effect of the workfare policy.'1
Workfares have low standards that produce poor and potentially unsafe products. Individuals forced into workfare schemes lack incentives to work to a high standard, and may be actively disaffected. The work they do is therefore unlikely to benefit anyone much and raises a number of safety issues: would you drive across a bridge built by workfare labour? Would you trust your aged parent or pre-school child to a workfare carer? Would you trust them with any job that required the handling of money? Given these constraints, it is clear that the government may be unable to find enough worthwhile things for their forced labourers to do.
Making the unemployed work for their welfare money positively breaks the dependency culture. Receiving unemployment benefit for doing nothing makes individuals too reliant on the state and encourages apathy and laziness; this is particularly true of the long-term unemployed and of those who have never had a paying job since leaving school. As President Clinton said regarding welfare reform, 'the goal is to break the culture of poverty and dependence'. Tying welfare money to productive work challenges these something-for-nothing assumptions and shows that the state has a right to ask for something in return for the generosity of its taxpayers. In New York, workfare pays slightly less than the minimum wage, preserving the incentive for the unemployed to use workfare as a stepping stone into a better-paid, long-term job1.
Workfare does not break the dependency culture. People do not seek unemployment and dependency on the state. No one voluntarily seeks to live on the very low income provided by state benefits, instead people become unemployed through no fault of their own; workfare stigmatises them as lazy and needing to be forced into work by state coercion. The schemes ignore the talents and ambitions of those involved, typically using them for menial tasks and manual labour that teach them no useful skills
Workfare is actually a more expensive option than traditional unemployment benefit. The jobless are ultimately given at least the same amount of taxpayers' money but the state also has to pay the costs of setting up the schemes, paying for materials, the wages of supervisors, transport and childcare costs, etc. In a recession, when the numbers of the unemployed rise substantially, the costs of workfare schemes could be prohibitive and lead to the collapse of the policy. Furthermore, even if the state wanted to, they couldn't enrol everyone– ‘given that most people who lose a job find another within six months, there’s no point dragging people into these schemes who will find work anyway given a little more time’1.
Workfare schemes are an investment in people. Spending money on workfare schemes is an investment in people, who gain the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty, and the economy, which benefits from a better supply of labour. Although such schemes might cost more per person than just handing out dole money for doing nothing, their ability to deter fraudulent claimants makes them cheaper overall. Their success in moving the unemployed into real jobs also benefits the government and the wider economy, through taxation and increased consumer spending.
Workfare schemes are of little use if there are no jobs out there for people to do. The evidence suggests that ‘the vast majority of unemployment – over 9-10ths – has nothing to do with people not wanting work, and everything to do with a lack of demand for labour’1. As such, with few jobs on offer, it is of little use to demand welfare recipients come in for work, rather than search harder and deeper for the few jobs that are available. Regardless, often the skills which employers are really demanding are specialised and at a high level, which menial make-work tasks are unlikely to provide the unemployed with. It would be far better to invest in proper education and training schemes instead. In 2003, 60 per cent of New York’s welfare recipients did not have high school diplomas; if they want this majority to find jobs, they should be paying for them to go back to school, not clean streets2.
Workfare does help people to get jobs by increasing the perception amongst employers that the unemployed nevertheless have the potential to be productive citizens – they’re willing and able to work, and have gained skills from being in a working environment. This counters one of the key barriers to employment, which is the prioritisation of younger generations who have not been tarred with the brush of having had to claim benefits. Furthermore, many schemes allow welfare recipients to satisfy work requirements by counting class rime, work-study jobs and internships – therefore, if education is what is felt to be missing, Workfare does not discourage participants from going back to school1.
Workfare harms those already in employment but on very low pay, because their menial jobs are the kind of labour that workfare projects will provide. Why should a local authority pay people to pick up litter or lay paving, if workfare teams can be made to do it for much less? If low-paid jobs are displaced, the ultimate result may be higher unemployment. In New York, public employee unions actively opposed Workfare specifically because they feared it would put public employees out of work1. Even if workfare projects are limited to labour for charities and non-profit groups, they discourage active citizenship and volunteerism as the state is assuming responsibility for these initiatives.
Workfare projects can be designed so as not to displace low-paid jobs: Often workfare schemes are limited to non-profit organisations deliberately in order to avoid a negative impact upon the local job market. In any case, many workers on very low pay only do such work for a relatively short time before finding better jobs elsewhere, so this is not a rigid sector of the labour force, liable to be destroyed by workfare.
Putting the unemployed into workfare schemes actually limits their opportunities to look for work, by making them show up for make-work schemes when they could be job hunting. Even if the numbers of those claiming unemployment benefit are reduced by the threat of such a scheme, that does not necessarily remove them from welfare rolls – they may, for example, be pushed into claiming other benefits, such as disability allowances. Others may prefer to turn to crime for income rather than be forced into workfare projects that don’t pay enough to be an attractive option. The evidence of the Workfare program in Argentina suggests that the policy has little positive effect on finding jobs for participants; ‘for a large fraction of participants, the program generated dependency and did not increase their human capital’1.
Workfare allows people to demonstrate both to themselves and others that a day at work will not always result in failure. This greatly benefits the self-esteem of many, who have become trapped in unemployment because their past experiences (perhaps beginning with unsuccessful schooldays) have lead them to believe that they cannot be useful and successful when doing a day at work. Workfare demonstrates that to be false by allowing them to work in a job where they can see the results of their labour, and not lose out (indeed, gain benefits) as a result.
Saunders, P. (2011, July 1). Those who can work must not be paid to sit at home. Retrieved July 19, 2011, from The Australian: