Cultures of worklessness - we need to focus on work, not welfare

First published in Stamp Out Poverty news

It’s popular for politicians to talk about generations of the same family that have never worked. But, as Rob MacDonald explains, research shows this is misleading.

The real problems of ‘in-work poverty’ and ‘underemployment’ are finally making some headlines, elbowing their way into the usual discourse about welfare to work and benefit dependency.

Yet the idea of a culture of worklessness – values, attitudes and behaviours that prefer welfare dependency to employment – remains influential and widely held. Politicians, policy makers and welfare practitioners talk confidently of ‘three generations of families where no-one has ever worked’.

A new study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation tested these ideas. The aim was to see whether cultures of worklessness helped explain long-term unemployment in families across generations.

We undertook concerted, intensive fieldwork in very deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow and Middlesbrough but we were unable to locate any families with three generations who had never worked.

If such families exist, they can only account for a minuscule fraction of workless people. Recent surveys suggest that less than one per cent of workless households might have two generations who have never worked. Families with three such generations will therefore be even fewer. 

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Next, we undertook lengthy, life history interviews with 20 families with long-term worklessness across two generations. Even locating these families was very challenging. So, what did we find?

• There was no evidence of a ‘culture of worklessness’. Families remained committed to the value of work and would have preferred to be in jobs rather than have ‘the miserable existence’ of a life on benefits.

• Workless parents were unanimous in not wanting their children to end up in the same situation as themselves and actively tried to help them find jobs.

• Working-age children remained strongly committed to conventional values about work as part of a normal transition to adulthood. They were keen to avoid the poverty, worklessness and other problems experienced by their parents.

• The long-term worklessness of parents in these families was a result of the impact of complex problems (particularly related to ill-health) associated with living in long-term and deep poverty. As one interviewee asked, ‘how can you work when you have a life like mine?’ In an already tight labour market, multiple problems combined to place people at the back of a long queue for jobs.

If we cannot find a ‘culture of worklessness’ here, amongst these extreme cases of very long-term unemployed families, we are unlikely to find it anywhere.

Politicians and policy-makers need to abandon theories – and policies flowing from them – that see worklessness as primarily the outcome of a culture of worklessness, held in families and passed down the generations. This returns us to our starting point. The real challenge is creating opportunities for work - jobs that help people escape from poverty and insecurity.

Poverty and Insecurity: life in low-pay, no-pay Britain is published this week by Policy Press.

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