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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.

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Only parents with children under 7 and the chronically ill would be exempt from the requirement to actively seek work. Drug addicts will not get payments unless they stick to treatment programs.

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Some progress since 1997

The numbers show that Labour has a long way to go to complete the welfare-to-work programs started in 1997. Then, there were 5.5 million benefit claimants – half of those on incapacity welfare. That number has been reduced to 4.5 million (from a total potential workforce of around 40 million), but there are still 2.7 million incapacity claimants and another 800,000 lone parents on the welfare rolls.

Middle England, that broad belt of the mildly conservative middle class has long since tired of watching its tax-pounds wash up in the pockets of those considered "benefit cheats": the golf-club regular who pays for his membership out of a disability allowance; or the young single mother who supposedly has children simply to get somewhere to live and a modest state income.

"With the strong economic recovery of the past 10 years and the increasing availability of work, people's mood has changed to be less sympathetic," says Professor Paul Gregg, a welfare expert at Bristol University in southwest England.

But critics say that hurrying someone into a job will not spirit away Britain's poverty problem. Martin Narey, chief executive of children's charity Barnado's, says that half of all children classified as poor in Britain actually already have a parent in a job. "High costs of child care, paired with the very low level of minimum wage, means that for too many a job is not a route out of poverty," he argues.

Barrier: child-care costs

Child-care issues appear insuperable when, as in the US, there is simply no obvious congruity between hours of school and hours of work. The Wisconsin welfare reforms claim success in reducing welfare claimants, but have been criticized for leaving lone parents bewildered about what to do with their children while they are at work.

The other major question mark is that the reforms are coming at a time when Britain, like much of the Western world, is heading into an economic downturn. Tony Lever, a manual worker currently "between jobs" shakes his head as he emerges from a job center in southwest London.

"In reality there isn't [sic] enough jobs to go round. If it came to pass that we all had to do it, so be it. But what about the council worker who is cleaning up litter? Will he become redundant?"

Others fear that the broad brush trying to sweep benefit claimants into work will not be able to differentiate between who is cheating the system and who is genuinely unable to work.

Emma Joseph, another job center claimant, says: "Some people get stuck in a rut and work would be good for them. But I don't see how you can get sick people to work. Some of my family are in incapacity benefit with mental problems. I don't think you could make them work."