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Bonuses for bureaucrats who help Brits off welfare

In a major push to reduce welfare rolls, the UK is offering local authorities bonuses for meeting specific targets, from reducing truancy to helping individuals find jobs.

By Mian RidgeCorrespondent / July 26, 2012

A person enters a job centre in central London in this August 2009 file photo.

Alastair Grant/AP

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London

David, a 48-year-old unemployed chartered surveyor from South London accepts, with a grim smile, that he is an archetypal member of what the government calls a “troubled family,” impoverished and dependent on the state.

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Out of work for 18 years and addicted to heroin, he lives in a government-owned apartment and depends on unemployment benefits of $105 a week to survive, as does his wife. Two of the couple’s children are grown, but their nine-year-old daughter lives in a care home.

This summer, the government launched a new $700 million plan, whereby local authorities will be paid by results. If they meet specific targets, from reducing truancy and youth crime to getting parents into jobs, the government will pay the local authorities up to $6,000 per family. The system works like a bonus, but more like a necessary one since authorities are increasingly cash-strapped after wide-ranging cuts. 

The government’s bold new push to cut state handouts ­– a key part of wider efforts to plug its budget deficit – has focused on an estimated 120,000 families that the government defines as “troubled,” based on indicators such as having no parent with a job to living in poor-quality housing. The government estimates that such families cost the state around $14 billion a year and perpetuate the problem of welfare dependency. 

Generations of trouble

Few people would disagree that radical changes need to be made to Britain’s system of welfare. More than 60 years after Britain’s postwar government set up a cradle-to-grave welfare state, nearly 5 million people claim housing benefits and 1.6 million request unemployment benefits. Because children in troubled families are likely to play hooky from school and come nowhere near meeting their potential, they are themselves far more prone to be unemployed and hopeless in adulthood. 

Louise Casey, director general of the government’s Troubled Families program, conducted in-depth interviews with more than a dozen families, some details of which were published this month. She says that abuse, teenage pregnancies, unemployment, truancy, and an over-familiarity with the police – “generation after generation” – can cost local authorities up to $313,000 per family every year. 

Even David, who once knew a very different life, in which he ran his own business, owned his own house, and brought his elder two children up himself to be hard working and successful, cannot see a way out of his wretchedness.

Though he says he has breathing trouble, a doctor assessed him as fit to work. So his disability living allowance – an extra sum paid on top of other benefits – has been cancelled. To qualify for his other government payouts, he has regular meetings with government workers, including a probation officer he has seen weekly since he came out of prison a year ago after serving a sentence for fraud.

He would like to return to work, he says. “But once you’re working, there are so many costs and you have to pay for medical prescriptions and I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore, having a job.”

He would also dearly love to get his daughter home. “But to get her back we would have to prove that we were clean from drugs,” he says quietly, adding that he would not like her to grow up in the apartment complex in which he lives. “There are so many bad people around.”

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