In Britain, Labour pushes ambitious overhaul of welfare system
Gordon Brown's beleaguered party unveiled proposals last week to send recipients back to work, including nearly 2 million whose disability claims are not believed to be genuine.
After four successive electoral disasters this summer, Gordon Brown is desperately casting around for the next big idea to convince voters – and his own party – that he still has something to offer.Skip to next paragraph
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Here's one: get more welfare recipients – especially single parents and those with mild disabilities – to go back to work.
It's not exactly a new idea. Over the past 11 years, the Labour government claims to have helped a million people back into work through various carrot-and-stick programs for young people and the long-term jobless. But more than 10 percent of Britain's potential workforce remain on welfare. Only 57 percent of single parents have jobs, compared to as many as 80 percent in countries like Sweden and Denmark.
And a report released last year said that less than a third of the 2.7 million claiming disability benefits were genuine. The government clearly believes now that there is social justice – and votes – to be had from tackling this conundrum.
True, tough-love measures might impress hardworking taxpayers sniffy about the welfare state, who are deserting Labour in droves. But the reforms also risk alienating core supporters who believe Labour should be about defending the underclass, not punishing it.
"At a time of increasing unemployment, such draconian measures will not only prove counter-productive, but the requirement for forced labor and the greater harassment of disabled people is a moral disgrace," says John McDonnell, a Labour parliamentarian on the party's left.
Drawing from models in Wisconsin
With one eye on a creaking welfare budget and another on its own plunging popularity, the government last week unveiled striking plans to encourage and/or cajole single parents and people on sickness benefits into work.
"This is about ensuring that no one is written off," says a government official familiar with the plans. People, he says, want to work. Children can be lifted out of poverty if mom gets a job. Idleness and dependency are bad for both welfare recipient and the state.
And so, drawing from experiences and programs as far removed as Wisconsin and Scandinavia, ministers believe they can get hundreds of thousands of people marginalized by circumstance, incapacity and, yes, indolence, into jobs.
But the proposals, which would save billions of pounds at a time of budgetary need and could prove a vote-winner for a government reeling towards oblivion at the next general election, are controversial.
The idea would be to step up the requirements on those out of work to actively seek jobs – or risk losing their welfare checks. Procrastinators could find themselves forced to do menial tasks like picking up litter or scrubbing graffiti off walls in order to continue to qualify for benefits. Anyone jobless for more than two years would have to work fulltime in the community to qualify for continued support.