Has the work ethic declined because of the welfare state?

‘The welfare state makes people lazy.’ Thus runs one of the oldest and most consistent critiques of the welfare state, echoing through the principle of ‘less eligibility’ in the Victorian Poor Law in Britain, right up until the present day. Three recent papers try to provide evidence on this, with one claiming to show the work ethic to have declined because of the welfare state, and another claiming to show the complete opposite…

I don’t think that the claims of ANY of the papers stand up to critical scrutiny (!). But in the process of taking these claims apart, we can see something more interesting about the work ethic and the welfare state over time and across countries. In this first post, I look at trends over time; next week, I come back to looking at the work ethic in different countries (including trends in different countries).

A declining work ethic?

So what has been happening to the work ethic in welfare states in the recent past?  Well, underlying the Daily Mail headline “Benefits ‘wrecked the British work ethic,’ new study claims” is a study by Michau 2009 (based on this LSE paper). This makes claims about the ‘work ethic’ based on a single question in the World Values Survey:

“Please tell me whether you think it is always justified, never justified or something in between to claim government benefits to which you are not entitled”

So even as we start, it’s clear we’re not talking about the ‘work ethic’ in the way that we’d usually understand it – this is about attitudes to benefit fraud.

Now, Michau wants to make claims about changes over a long period of time, but only has data in 1980, 1990 and 2000 for 18 countries. So to find a ‘trend’, he looks at different attitudes to benefit fraud by age. The results are shown in the Figure below – and show that younger people think it is more justifiable to cheat on benefits.

The problems with the killer figure…

There are three problems with these claims though:

  • We are not actually seeing trends here. Instead we are ASSUMING them, based on attitudes among people of different ages. In the full paper, Michau (p30) uses the 1980-2000 change to try and disentangle this, but it’s still not absolutely clear whether benefit fraud attitudes deteriorated even over the period we can observe.

In fact, if we look directly at trends, then Esser shows slightly rising employment commitment 1989-2005 among both men and women (p95-6; I discuss Esser’s measures and findings more next week).

  • This is not a measure of ‘work ethic’.  Again from the full paper, Michau (p28) finds that this correlates with more usual work ethic questions (e.g. job satisfaction, work should come first, look forward to work after the weekend) – but the correlations are actually quite weak. He does find that the cohort effect can also be seen when looking at the question, ‘work should always come first, even if this means less spare time’ (p31). But this is only observed at one point in time (2000), and moreover, shows a different TIMING of the cohort effect (declining among cohorts born in the 40s and 50s vs. the 30s, and then staying stable – which suggests a possible WW2 role, as Michau mentions but then ignores).
  • We don’t know WHY attitudes changed. Michau claims that “the rise in European unemployment can be explained by a generation-long lag between the introduction (or expansion) of unemployment benefits and the behavioural responses of workers”. But the actual evidence for this is weak to non-existent (see also below).

We know, for example, that there have been huge changes in attitudes completely unrelated to the welfare state – such as widespread rises in criminal behaviour in the late 20th century and increased individualism – and these could easily explain any trend in attitudes. When noting the benefit cheat attitude trend in countries with weak welfare states (below), Michau notes that “work ethic is certainly affected by many factors beyond the generosity of the welfare state” (p33), but he never really considers this properly.

(This seems to use Ljunge 2011:614 that makes similar if more muted claims based on the same analysis for 95 countries using the same data – but also makes some inferential leaps in seeing increased sickness benefit claims as a sign of changing benefit attitudes, rather than (say) fundamental changes in the nature of work).

Next week I’ll show how Michau’s claims seem a bit puzzling when we look at the work ethic in different countries – and try to draw all this together into a coherent picture.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbgeiger.co.uk
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2 Responses to Has the work ethic declined because of the welfare state?

  1. Louis says:

    I don’t think the welfare system has ruined the work ethic so much as made working a fool’s game.

    If your marginal tax rate measured by loss of benefits and taxes and national insurance is over 60-70% then there is very little reward for working more or working harder. It isn’t so much of a loss of work ethic as a loss of reward for working more.

    From that perspective not working is a sensible and rational economic choice – I would much rather have lots more free time and a slightly lower salary.

  2. Pingback: The work ethic in generous welfare states | Inequalities

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