Dr Andrew Dunn is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Lincoln. He is the author of a new book – Rethinking Unemployment and the Work Ethic.
The Coalition Government has increased the number of conditions attached to receiving unemployment benefits (i.e. Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), soon to be Universal Credit) and imposed tougher financial penalties upon those who do not comply. This trend towards greater conditionality and sanctioning, which dates back to the 1980s, is underpinned by a view that many people would rather live on benefits than enter employment.
Indeed, both Iain Duncan Smith and John Hutton, one of Duncan Smith’s Labour predecessors at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), have openly endorsed this view, and it is widely popular among voters. Yet academic researchers, who are mostly from the left-dominated subject social policy, insist that the politicians and public have got it wrong; their evidence shows repeatedly that unemployed benefit claimants possess the same work values as everyone else, and that the overwhelming majority both want employment and actively search for it.
In what follows, I look critically at these academic conclusions and present some of my own research findings from my new book, which has been described by Professor Larry Mead, an influential US commentator, as: “the deepest inquiry I know of into unemployment in Britain”. My insights may be useful to Ministers when they come up against critics armed with “scientific evidence”.
What Alan Deacon in his Perspectives on Welfare termed the “quasi-Titmuss school”, with its exclusively structural explanations of social problems including poverty and unemployment, and its strong links to ‘poverty lobby’ organisations like the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), has long dominated UK social policy.
In this climate, research findings which might appear surprising to outside observers (i.e: the unemployed having more positive attitudes to employment than the employed) are accepted uncritically, while researchers have failed to address the sort of questions a Conservative might ask (i.e: why didn’t those unemployed people apply for more low status jobs?) – and authors who focus any attention on the behaviour of individuals when explaining poverty and unemployment have been misrepresented, treated dismissively and castigated for “blaming the victim”.
Mainstream UK social policy authors have not only overlooked the fact that conservative authors such as Mead usually only claim that unemployed people choose to avoid the least attractive category of jobs (i.e. badly paid, dead-end, boring jobs) in favour of benefits, but also that these conservatives tend to consider benefit claimants’ testimonies a poor guide to their actual behaviour (they instead tend to rely upon the views of people in the welfare-to-work industry).
With these considerations in mind, my own four research projects have looked at “choosiness” (by which I mean being selective in the jobs one is willing to do to avoid living on benefits), and one project featured interviews with people in welfare-to-work organisations contracted by the DWP to help JSA claimants into employment.
Two of my in-depth interview projects (one in 2001/2 with 20 employees and 30 unemployed JSA claimants; the other in 2011 with 30 employees and 40 unemployed JSA claimants) found that all unemployed JSA claimants in both studies had been employed at some point, and all were willing to undertake some jobs at present.
However, these interviews’ focus on respondents’ attitudes towards (and actual choices between) the less attractive jobs and claiming JSA exposed not only widespread reluctance to undertake ‘bad’ jobs, but also a dramatic difference between determined job searchers and employees who saw employment as an imperative, and others who favoured living on benefits over undertaking jobs they considered uninteresting or unpleasant. Until now, social policy authors have been able to say that this oft-supposed dramatic difference is a right-wing (or tabloid press) myth.
In another of my projects, all of the 40 employees of welfare-to-work organisations I interviewed said that many of their long-term (i.e. over six months) JSA claimant 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 of their clients would enter employment within two months if they applied for a range of relatively unattractive jobs.
The only other UK study of welfare-to-work industry employees to focus specifically upon their clients’ work attitudes is Tracy Shildrick et al’s ‘Poverty and Insecurity’ – an archetypally ‘quasi-Titmuss school’ book which also included interviews with unemployed and employed people about their own work attitudes.
Shildrick and her colleagues drew the firm conclusion that people ‘love’ working and ‘loathe’ claiming benefits based on what unemployed and employed people said: they completely dismissed what their welfare-to-work industry respondents’ comments (which were very similar to what mine said) as biased!
While biases and prejudices inevitably influence interview findings, this favouring of one form of research over the other is remarkable, given that the professionals have vast experience of their unemployed clients’ job search activity, and that the unemployed might be reluctant to risk losing their income by telling a stranger they do not want a job, even if they believe the risk of being reported to the benefit authorities is tiny.
Yet because conclusions such as Shildrick and her fellow authors’ are pleasing to left-wing people’s ears, they receive little or no critical scrutiny from other social policy academics. In fact, among the book’s many plaudits, Hartley Dean in ‘Critical Social Policy’ even suggested that Shildrick et al should have emphasised their finding about the strong work ethic of benefit claimants even more than they did!
My fourth project (with Clare Saunders and Maria T. Grasso) used survey evidence. Previous surveys have used questions which, we argue, are inappropriate for studying unemployment (they have mainly used the ‘lottery question’ – ‘would you work if you had no financial need to?’) since these questions do not offer respondents anything like a straight choice between employment and unemployment.
We used the agree/disagree statement “having almost any job is better than being unemployed” from the British Cohort Study (BCS) and National Child Development Study (NCDS), which each have large samples of about 10,000. Being ‘unemployed and seeking work’ associated strongly with ‘disagreeing’ with the statement in the two most recent datasets of both the BCS and NCDS, even when relevant variables were controlled for.
Thus, all of my studies’ findings are consistent with the view that, while unemployed benefit claimants generally want and seek employment, large numbers remain on benefits because they are too choosy in the jobs they are willing to do. While the unemployment trap (being unable to increase one’s net income by entering employment) is well established by researchers, people being reluctant to do jobs that would increase their net income, but which they consider unattractive, has not emerged to anything like the same extent before.
While a detailed discussion of policy is beyond the scope of this piece, I believe that my arguments and evidence go some way towards extinguishing the view that is popular among mainstream academics (but not among mainstream politicians) that unemployed people’s work ethic is so strong that imposing strict conditions on the receipt of their benefit is unnecessary.
While it is perhaps inevitable that academics’ political standpoints (whether left or right) influence their research and writing, UK social policy literature on unemployment is nevertheless striking in this regard, as the vast majority of authors are clearly committed to one side – the political left.
Yet their bias, and the impact it has on the evidence base, is rarely acknowledged – a striking example of their bias being overlooked came when a CPAG complaint to the BBC Trust about the John Humphreys documentary The Future State of Welfare, which Iain Duncan Smith had described as ‘excellent’, was partially upheld.
The BBC Trust report accepted uncritically the example of ‘independent academic research’ CPAG provided them with, which had concluded that ‘unemployment is caused by structural factors outside the control of the individual’. I urge policymakers to look more critically at the ‘facts’ and ‘scientific evidence’ delivered by social policy academics and poverty lobby organisations.