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, 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.