The £52-a-week lifestyle choice

Article published: Thursday, September 16th 2010

Last week George Osborne announced that a further £4bn would be slashed from the welfare budget to combat those who, he says, regard unemployment benefits as a “lifestyle choice”. If as he says, this is a choice, it is hardly a glamorous or luxurious one: a single person under the age of 25 claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) is entitled to a mere £51.85 a week. Is this the kind of the decadence he is targeting?

Cracking down on “benefit cheats” and eradicating a culture which promotes inactivity through offering payments for not working is high up on the ConDem government’s agenda as part of reducing the public deficit. Ignoring for one moment the total burden of benefit payments on a macro-economic level, it is worth considering whether a life spends signing on is really as lucrative and attractive as ministers would have you think by taking the example of a young unemployed person.

Don’t spend it all at once…

Firstly, how far will £51.85 a week get you? Let’s assume that in order to look for work, do your shopping and have some kind of social life you require public transport. A low-priced weekly bus pass in Manchester would be around £11. Then food: to meet your daily recommended intake of 5 portions of fruit and veg (a government figure, of course) and other nutritional minimums you would have to spend a minimum of £20. This is a very conservative figure and would be the lowest-priced (and often quality) brands of food; in all likelihood the basket price would probably be much higher. Next bills would put you back at least another £5 as would a mobile phone – something you could hardly consider a luxury nowadays.

After these expenditures you are left with the princely sum of £10.85 if you are lucky. So how would you choose to spend your pennies – a trip to the cinema (£5-7), a few beers at the pub (£10 at least), a swim at the local municipal pool (£2.40), some nice ingredients for a meal with friends (£5-8)? Granted that your rent will be covered by Housing Benefits and you are not liable for Council Tax, so at least you won’t have to worry about those things. But when you cannot even afford to go to the cinema and have to think twice about going swimming – never mind going to concerts or a night drinking with friends – can anybody seriously argue that £10 a week in the 21st Century is enough to bankroll even the most modest of hedonists?

The vicious attack on those in receipt of unemployment benefits, labelling them as lazy opportunists with comfortable lives, is part of the flimsy rhetoric which cunningly denies the structural causes of unemployment – reducing it merely to a question of individual responsibility – and which paints an illusory picture of what being on the dole is really like.

The reality of entering the job market

Despite unemployment almost hitting the 2.5 million mark the Tories´ attitude remains reminiscent of Norman Tebbit’s “get on your bike and find a job” platitudes of the 1980s. Meanwhile elements of the Tory party appear to be living in an entrepreneurial fantasy world where anybody – if they only can muster the wherewithal and work ethic – can be their own boss and run a business. This betrays a complete lack of understanding of life for the average person, coupled with a wilful ignorance of the reality of entering the labour market for young people.

The New Labour promise to a generation that universal higher education – driven by a misguided vision of how to achieve social equality – would open doors into well-paid jobs and fulfilling jobs with prospects has monumentally failed. With a saturation of university degrees in the job market and a shrinking number of graduate posts the result is that experience becomes the indispensable prerequisite to even getting a look-in for a job.

Consequently it has become necessary to gain experience in a sector before you can even get a foot in the door in the form of internships. These are often unpaid, as organisations in the 3rd and voluntary sector – constantly under spending restraints – as well as smaller businesses cannot afford to employ; and more unscrupulous employers see the prospect of cheap labour with no strings attached. JSA rules stipulate that you can only complete 16 hours voluntary work a week whilst on the dole and that this must be for a charity. The irony is that you are therefore effectively penalised for attempting to get relevant experience in a sector in which you wish to work, and this explains why many feel obliged to lie about what they are doing outside of the jobcentre.

Practical help or forced labour?

So what practical help is there for the unemployed? From a fortnightly visit to sign on at the local jobcentre it feels like the government is pressing jobcentre employees into trying to force jobseekers into taking any job available, regardless of their skills and experience and what you actually want to do. On an economic level this makes no sense: having invested vast amounts of money in education and skill training for young people, it is a waste of resource to have them take a position which demands lowers skills, as well as pushing out of employment those who are more suited for such positions. If we are to follow the market-economics logic of the major political parties, then this is a clear misallocation of resources and skills which is of no benefit to the broader economy.

Furthermore many aspects of the New Deal programme introduced by Labour and aimed at people unemployed for more than 6 months are patronising: they force you on to unhelpful courses which do nothing to build skills or experience, attended by many simple to receive JSA; or even worse other schemes including compulsory full-time work placements during which the person can be paid less than £2 an hour. Aside from being viewed as cheap labour and rarely kept on for proper employment, this can have the knock-on effect of lowering other workers’ wages – evidenced by a similar scheme that ran in America.

However one Labour project which had some degree of success in helping people into meaningful work whilst ensuring they were recompensed was the Future Jobs Fund. This was a £1bn fund which gave long-term unemployed young people the opportunity of a work placement at minimum wage. While not perfect, the fund targeted those who were disadvantaged and tried to help participants into working for social enterprises and “green jobs” – positions of social utility which actually positively contribute to society rather than just capital generation. This was predictably scrapped on the arrival of the Tories into power, a move whose sense was question even by the neo-liberal Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Removing the thin safety net – one with rather large and gaping holes – which we have is not going to solve the fact that there are simply not enough jobs in the economy. Nor will it engender a culture of work in families and areas of disadvantage where there has been none for generations. But this punitive approach is exactly the kind of kind of unprogressive policy to be expected from Tories, who ignore the power of social forces in society – and one among many that will have to be fought.

And to conclude I would like to issue a challenge to George Osborne in his erstwhile valiant fight to reduce the deficit: how about you try living on £51.85 a week for a couple of months, then see which “lifestyle choices” you want to attack?

James Cassidy

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