Welfare services should stick to giving advice and recommending education

Policy that assumes people are lazy and prone to welfare dependency is dubious

Policymakers invoke the “scarring effect” of unemployment – a persistent lower income for those who have been long-term unemployed, even when the economy recovers. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Policymakers invoke the “scarring effect” of unemployment – a persistent lower income for those who have been long-term unemployed, even when the economy recovers. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

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Winding down the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) carefully is the balancing act at the heart of the new Pathways to Work 2021-2025 social welfare policy.

The PUP was an emergency measure which granted unconditional support to all workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic, generally paid at €350 per week. Taking that away is tricky.

As lockdowns ebbed and flowed last year, people flowed between work and the PUP; suggesting people work when work is available. Any social policy that assumes people are lazy and prone to welfare dependency is very dubious.

The State is haunted by the idea of youth unemployment – the spectre of a 'lost generation' – and the supposedly 'stubbornly' long-term unemployed

Strikingly, the recent Pathways to Work is a continuation of the 2011 policy – the same name and much of the same thinking. It attempts to reduce unemployment by actively managing the lives of jobseekers. For instance, 150 new case-workers will be appointed, so that 1,600,000 case-work interviews can be held per annum – probably with more employed via a renewed outsourced JobPath scheme.

Effectively, the State is gearing up to “get people back to work”. It plans to do this by advising and guiding people’s job search, and even monitoring and directing the unemployed in authoritarian ways.

‘Lost generation’

This is why case work is so central. The State is haunted by the idea of youth unemployment – the spectre of a "lost generation" – and the supposedly "stubbornly" long-term unemployed. Last week the OECD warned that unemployment might be more prolonged in Ireland than elsewhere, but even it predicted a return to full employment within two to three years.

Policymakers invoke the “scarring effect” of unemployment, which for economists and statisticians means a persistent lower income for those who have been long-term unemployed, even when the economy recovers. This metaphor of "scarring" is evocative, implying personal suffering which inhibits individual careers and lives, with knock-on economic effects which need a policy solution.

This idea of scarring pervades social welfare policy, so much so that unemployment appears almost like a disease to be cured. Furthermore, tough medicine is recommended.

Given the context of the State withdrawing the PUP, it is not surprising the language of Pathways to Work 2021-2025 is toned down from what was launched in 2011 by Enda Kenny and Joan Burton. That document proudly declared that anyone who did not engage with welfare services could be sanctioned.

These sanctions took the form of reduced welfare payments for up to nine weeks – a drop from €188 to €144 – a threat to put people below the breadline, mentioned in all communications with the office.

Having been sanctioned does not make people more likely to get a job, just more compliant with office requirements

Despite annual reductions in unemployment for a decade, the numbers of unemployed sanctioned continuously rose, from some 353 in 2011 to 9,878 in 2019. Non-compliance was warrant enough for a penalty rate sanction – from refusing to accept an internship or training course, being unable to prove job-searching or even being late for a meeting. The application of penalty rates has not been in effect since March 2020.

By comparison, the current policy ties itself up in circumlocutions; it presents Intreo as a supportive and collaborative service, but insists: “This is not to say that conditionality is not applied and that in the very small number of cases where jobseekers do not engage with the service and it is clear that they are not seeking to find work or improve their prospects of finding work, that access to jobseeker payments will not be restricted.” Sanctions are still on the table.

Undermining confidence

Sociological research over the last decade consistently demonstrates that putting pressure on the unemployed to find work only undermines their confidence, often leads to stress, anxiety, depression and worse, and can create poverty, indebtedness and much worse economic situations. Having been sanctioned does not make people more likely to get a job, just more compliant with office requirements.

Beyond the personal level, there is strong international evidence that “welfare activation” policies such as those adopted in Ireland in 2011 have a negligible impact on the overall jobless rate – which actually depends on wholesale economic recovery – and are very expensive to administer.

Essentially, people want to work. It is an activity which puts a shape to life, gives status and camaraderie, never mind the economic benefits. Over the past year the rapid cycling between furlough and work suggests that there is no justification for continually threatening everyone on welfare and for punishing individuals with the aspiration of behavioural modification. Beyond preventing fraud, welfare services should stick to giving advice and recommending education – a real pathway to meaningful, lifelong rewarding careers.

Instead of welfare benefits dependent on compliant jobseeking, we need entitlements as a right, with careful thought to what strings might be attached, such as the PUP. Facing mass unemployment, pandemics and climate change we need cohesion. We’re still all in this together.

Tom Boland and Ray Griffin are authors of The Reformation of Welfare: the New Faith of the Labour Market

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