Britain’s Conservative-led government delivered a one-two punch for more pillars of Britain’s social benefits system this week. It announced more cuts to the country’s social welfare programs — moving ever-closer to “workfare.”
It started when George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, told the Conservative Party’s annual conference that starting next April, some 200,000 people who have been unemployed for two years or more will be offered three choices: undertake unpaid community work; report to a job center every workday; or take part in a full-time intensive program to work on the personal issues that have kept them out of the workforce.
If they don’t, they’ll lose their benefits check.
“No one will be ignored or left without help. But no one will get something for nothing,” Osborne told the Tory gathering. “Because a fair welfare system is fair to those who need it, and fair to those who pay for it, too.”
Iain Duncan Smith, the country’s work and pensions secretary, told the BBC that when similar requirements were enacted on a smaller scale to address the problem of “playing” the system, about 70 percent of recipients stopped claiming benefits.
Next in the Conservative cross hairs: the 1 million so-called “Neet,” or young people “not in education, employment or training.”
Prime Minister David Cameron told the party faithful that unemployed under-25s will no longer automatically qualify for jobless or housing benefits, in an attempt to change what he describes as a culture in which kids as young as 16 leave school for a life — and a home — on the dole.
“Go to school, go to a college, do an apprenticeship, get a job. But just choose the dole? We’ve got to offer them something better than that,” he said.
The Neets will be offered a choice, too: as Cameron put it, “earning or learning.”
The push to move from welfare to workfare echoes, most famously, the massive effort to “end welfare as we know it” undertaken by U.S. President Bill Clinton beginning in 1996. The basic premise was that many people on public assistance would have to work for their benefits checks or take steps toward getting a job. The results, not surprisingly, have been mixed — with successes on some fronts, but the emergence of new problems on others.
In Britain, the response to both Conservative Party proposals was skeptical.
Birmingham automotive worker Chris French has been unemployed for 3 1/2 years. “I’ve spent two years on the government’s back-to-work program, which [has resulted in] totally nothing,” he said on the BBC, referring to current requirements for benefits recipients. “As for going into the job center every day — I’ve offered to go in every day. I’m going in once a week and I’m being told they’re struggling to find me a place once a week.”
As for yanking housing benefits for those under 25, homeless advocates say many of these young people are deeply troubled, fleeing chaotic, even dangerous backgrounds, and could just end up on the streets.
The government says the vulnerable will be protected. But Campbell Robb, from the Shelter charity, says the numbers just don’t add up.
“Housing benefit can make a difference to young people when they’ve had a hard time,” he says. “Either you get rid of it for so many people that it has devastating impact, or you have so many exemptions that the policy just won’t work.”
It’s not clear if or when cuts to the under-25s would take effect.
The proposal won rapturous applause at the Conservative Party conference. But Joe Twyman, director of political and social research at the polling organization YouGov, says it isn’t favored by most other British voters, whose support Cameron will need in the next election.
However, when it comes to dealing with those Britons who’ve spent years — sometimes decades — collecting unemployment, Twyman says even the socialist opposition Labour Party has acknowledged that workfare is the public’s will.
“Since the economic crisis, people’s positions have shifted,” he says. “And now there’s a recognition, for instance, that a change of the welfare system has to occur.”
These are the latest Conservative cuts to welfare, but decidedly not the last: Osborne also announced this week his austerity measures will continue for another six years. That’s assuming, of course, the Conservatives are re-elected in 2015.