The deservingness of benefit claimants (II)

In this second of three posts responding to John Humphrys’ Future State of Welfare, I look at his example of people who want to work – but won’t work in crap jobs. The critical questions are: do these people exist?  If so, how common are they? And (next week), what does all this mean for welfare policy?

About 11 minutes into the BBC documentary The Future State of Welfare – the programme that prompted these three posts – the presenter John Humphrys has a conversation with an unemployed man in Middlesborough that sums up his attack on the welfare state:

Long-term claimant: Before I take a job, you have to sit down with them and work it out whether it’s acceptable to go to work or not.

Humphrys: When you say acceptable, in what way?

LTC: In whether it’s worth your while to go to work.

Humphrys: “[Slowly] Right… [Normally] Why might it not be then?”

LTC: Because I might go to work for 40 hours and end up with £30 or £20 after I’ve paid out all my bills [Conversation omitted] That’s the problem with me, I want to work, but I can’t afford a minimum wage work

Humphrys: You don’t think that working is better whatever the financial=

LTC: =No no no no, not at all.  I just don’t see =I don’t want to be going out to work for 40 hours and missing my kids, if I’m only going to receive a few quid extra for it, do you understand?  I’m missing my kids growing up.  I can’t see how the minimum wage is good enough at all…

In this post I ask: is this a fair description of the British welfare state?

Academic research on unemployed people

From a left-wing perspective, we’d probably like to believe that there are no unemployed people that are choosy about the jobs they’d take – in the same way that we’d like to believe that no people fraudulently claim benefits (see last week’s post). But clearly this isn’t true. The conversation above is referred to in a wide variety of academic research, even in studies that disagree with almost everything else that Humphrys had to say.

For example, in Dean and Taylor-Gooby’s classic (1992) Dependency Culture: The Explosion of a Myth, they cite one young unemployed man who wanted to be a labourer, saying, “I don’t want to sit there putting things in a machine or packing boxes, that’s no good to me, I’d get fat and lazy…What I’m asking for is a good job, good pay and I’ll work hard for it” (p96; see also p93). Andrew Dunn has recently addressed this issue in a few recent papers (see also comment below), and likewise found widespread choosiness, including (in paper 1) what he calls the ‘low employability’ group who were particularly keen to turn down work when it paid no more than benefits.

But how common are these people? There are relatively few quantitative studies here. Dunn’s analysis of a nationally representative sample of people born in the UK in 1958 (in paper 1, p15) finds that 65% of employed people agree that ‘having almost any job is better than being unemployed’, compared to only 39% of unemployed people – although this is challenging to interpret, as I go into below. Perhaps the most interesting study is the survey of choosiness in 245 Scottish unemployed people by Lindsay & McQuaid. The paper itself is worth a detailed read and ends on a radical progressive note, but their key findings were:

  • Large numbers of their respondents said they would never consider working in certain entry-level service employment – 38% about retail, 41% about hospitality, and as many as 51% about call centre work (p307). All of these jobs are argued to available relatively nearby at that time.
  • Certain types of people were more likely to reject this sort of work – particularly men, older people, and those looking to earn £200/pw or more (p307/311).
  • In a slightly earlier, nearby piece of work, the same authors likewise found some choosiness in terms of how far unemployed people were willing to travel for work – with 40% willing to travel only up to 45 mins each way, vs. 40% willing to commute for over an hour.

Where Humphrys goes wrong

The problem, then, isn’t that Humphrys is inventing a non-existent phenomenon for the camera – rather, it’s what he thinks these findings mean. There are two huge problems with his argument: (i) whether these are signs of a ‘benefits culture that we’ve created over the decades’, in his words, rather than a normal reaction shared by most people; and (ii) whether this choosiness is the reason that people aren’t working.

Firstly, then, the research seems astonishingly consistent in showing that most of us have an aversion to crap jobs. Dean & Taylor-Gooby say (p96) that better-qualified benefit recipients had more reservations about these jobs; “am I going to make a very good cleaner in a leisure centre when I’ve been trained to be the goddam manager?”, as one said. Dunn emphasises (paper 1:9) that everyone he spoke to was choosy about the jobs they’d take to some degree, with qualifications making people ‘feel entitled to be choosier’ (p12). It’s the well-qualified, not the low-skilled, who seem to have the strongest resistance to this work.

And more than this, it’s clear that most unemployed people desperately want to work, fitting all the wider research about work commitment in unemployed people (e.g. Dean & Taylor-Gooby:92, and more widely reviewed in Dunn #1:4), and as expressed the quote that started this article. As Ruth Lister (and others) fiercely argued back against Charles Murray in the mid-90s, it’s not clear that there’s a ‘dependency culture’ in the sense of a large number of people with alternative values. While 1.4m people have claimed out-of-work benefits in at least 9 of the last 10 years, 9.3m other people have also claimed out-of-work benefits in this time; likewise the overwhelming majority of the respondents in Dunn (#1 p9), Lindsay & McQuaid (p305) had worked in the past. And there are people who are even desperate to take the jobs that no-one else wants, even a job ‘shovelling shit’ (Dean & Taylor-Gooby:95).

In the face of this, we have to be cautious about how people who have never been unemployed interpret the question that Dunn uses on preferring benefits vs. work – I love the Douglas Coupland quote that begins the Lindsay & McQuaid article:

“McJob: a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one”

Secondly, there’s a world of difference between people saying they wouldn’t like a crap job,  and this being the main reason that they’re not working. Humphrys didn’t mention the considerable health barriers to getting a job – that many disability claimants have health problems, the barriers that parents have in accessing suitable childcare, the 5m adults in the UK who are functionally illiterate (see also UKCES)… I was struck by a recent anecdote that the new Westfield shopping centre in East London had committed to employing large numbers of local unemployed people, but found they had to lay on special courses just so that enough people could complete the application form properly, let alone do the job. Which all makes it hard to understand the role of this ‘choosiness’, as Lindsay & McQuaid make clear.

Most of all, it’s simply incredible that Humphrys didn’t mention the simple lack of jobs at this time of economic crisis. At all! The extent of his engagement with labour demand is to go into a Jobcentre in Cardiff, tap at a terminal to look at a few jobs, and to say ‘in September there were more than 1600 jobs advertised in Cardiff’. Both Lindsay & McQuaid and Dunn conducted their research in relatively prosperous labour markets at times of plenty, where – to the extent that there are a mixture of choosy and non-choosy jobseekers – we would expect the share of choosy jobseekers to be high. At the present time, with unemployment high and likely to rise further, the opposite is likely to be true.

To summarise: it’s clear that some unemployed people don’t want to take crap jobs, as argued in The Future State of Welfare. But that doesn’t mean either (i) that there is a ‘benefits culture’, as more educated people are even less likely to say that they’d take these jobs; nor (ii) that this is the reason that people aren’t working, part-way into the worst recession in years. Still, this raises questions about conditionality, deservingness and the popular legitimacy of the welfare state – and it’s these that I’ll go into next week.

8 responses to “The deservingness of benefit claimants (II)”

  1. *Most of all, it’s simply incredible that Humphrys didn’t mention the simple lack of jobs at this time of economic crisis. At all!” says it all. The Jobcentres are full of people forced through hoops to show tyhat their job seeking is serious. They are made to apply for jobs for which there is no hope of success and a waste of their time and that of potential employers. Back-to-work schemes or whatever they are called this week create work only for the course providers and even that chore is being pushed out to the voluntary sector.
    The young are being dragooned into unpaid work for large organisations which care only about their bottom lines and not their staff, how long before all benefit becomes conditional on the acceptance of non jobs, working for nothing to supply free labour for highly profitable companies?

  2. Ben,

    Reading your post made me think about the broader implications of refusing work on citizenship in a democratic welfare state. Here’s an interesting point Michael Walzer makes:

    ” It is sometimes said to be an argument against the welfare state that its members are unwilling to take on certain sorts of jobs. But surely that is a sign of success. When we design a system of communal provision, one of our aims is to free people from the immediate constraints of physical need. So long as they are unfree, they are available for every sort of hard work, abased, as it were, by anticipation. Hungry, powerless, always insecure, they constitute “the reserve army of the proletariat.” Once they have alternatives, they will rally and say No. Still, the work needs to be done. Who is to do it?”

    I take the point here to be that in a world in which the lowest status members of society are not empowered, there will be no scope to meaningfully exercise choice over careers. If we expect choice for the higher status members of society, do we owe some exercisable options even to those that are in a state of welfare dependency?


    • Nice to have you back Brendan! And a lovely quote from an interesting paper. Will try and respond to this (inadequately) next week, but perhaps best to see this as the start of an ongoing conversation about these issues, rather than as any final, complete answer.

    • Brendan, thank you for this link _very_interesting reading. I fear that the government’s current strategy is to create a permanent underclass which will be forced into lifetimes of drudgery for its daily crust with no prospects of education, travel or even health. This is morally wrong and I suspect, in overall terms, bad business. .

  3. I’ve just read an interesting paper that relates to a PhD thesis by David McCollum, a researcher at Dundee and St Andrews. He’s done some mixed-methods work on cycling between work and benefits, and his article in People, Place and Policy online talks about how people don’t want to say in crap jobs. So it’s not just about taking jobs vs. rejecting them, but it’s also about how long people stay in jobs. (And all of the things I say above apply to this too, I’d imagine).

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