Workfare – a Blast from the Past? Contemporary Work Conditionality for the Unemployed in Historical Perspective
Based on an article in Social Policy and Society
The development of illiberal social policies across North America and much of Western Europe has become a defining feature of the modern period. This is particularly apparent in welfare reform programmes which have shifted the policy debate from the problem of inequality to the problem of ‘dependency’. This has been reflected in the growing trope of individual responsibility and the perceived need to implement compulsive strategies to getting the unemployed into work enforced by benefit sanctions. It is in this context that workfare, where unemployed people are obliged to undertake designated labour if they want to continue receiving benefits, has flourished.
Many conceptualisations of workfare are predicated on the notion that there has been an historical rupture in the approach taken by the state towards the long-term unemployed. Theodore (1998) argues that there has been a shift from the welfare state to a Schumpetarian workfare state. This is signalled by the punitive nature of programmes which attempt to recast ‘supply-side’ problems as the product of deficient work ethic. Piven (2010) and Dean (2012) view workfare as a vehicle for reinforcing the chronically insecure employment that has flourished in the wake of neo-liberal inspired labour market deregulation. Wacquant (2009) views workfare as emblematic of a shift from the social to the punitive treatment of poverty resulting from the decline of the welfare state, the advent of post-Fordism and the rise of neo-liberalism.
However, policy makers and social theorists alike have paid little heed to the lessons of history. The author of this article finds that workfare does not represent a radical departure in the evolution of British labour market policy. Rather the most recent workfare schemes merely resuscitate a heritage of compelling the long-term unemployed to work for their benefit. During the inter-war period almost 190,000 unemployed British men were pressed into labour camps where ‘training’ took the form of a twelve-week course comprising hard, manual labour. The author shows that both then and now workfare has flourished in times of economic crisis, and especially where Governments have sought to balance budgets and pursue economic theories which exalt the market. Although lacking the overt penal overtones emblematic of the labour camps modern workfare exhibits a number of continuities with its inter-war antecedent including a focus on the motivations and behaviour of the unemployed; the use of front-line public employment staff to discipline ‘recalcitrant’ groups; and the use of ‘training’ to reinforce work discipline rather than develop vocational skills.