The idea that a generous welfare state reduces people’s work ethic is so ingrained in British political culture it has become axiomatic. So commonsensical in this view that many readers will no doubt be scratching their heads wondering why I just stated the bleedin’ obvious. For example, 69 percent of respondents in a January YouGov poll agreed that “Britain’s current welfare system has created a culture of dependency”. Similarly, a survey last year by the respected NatCen Social Research found 54 percent of respondents believed that unemployment benefits were too high and discouraged the unemployed from finding work. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith seems to stand with public opinion on this issue, warning recently that a 5.2 percent increase in unemployment benefits would make it less likely the unemployed would seek work.
But what if I was to tell you the evidence suggests the exact opposite is true?
I am referring to the very important but largely ignored research titled ‘Has welfare made us lazy? Employment commitment in different welfare states’ included in the 2009 British Social Attitudes survey. The author, Ingrid Esser, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Stockholm University, compares the generosity of the welfare state with employment commitment in 13 industrialised nations. Her conclusion? “Employment commitment is decidedly stronger within more generous welfare states”. She goes on to say “work morale cannot be described as being undermined by generous welfare states today. Social benefits do not appear to have made people lazy… it appears to be quite possible to maintain strong work morale within a generous welfare state.” Furthermore, she notes the few studies that were conducted prior to her research “have either found no clear relationship between employment commitment and welfare provision, or have found stronger employment commitment in countries known to have more generous welfare states.”
Not that you would know any of this from reading our supposedly progressive media. A quick search of the websites of The Guardian, Independent and BBC bring up zero mentions of Esser or her myth-shattering study.
For those sceptics who are thinking ‘work commitment’ is a vague term to define and measure, how about using employment statistics instead? As the level of benefits paid to the unemployed in the UK are among the lowest in Europe, the ‘welfare makes people lazy’ argument suggests the UK will have a corresponding low level of unemployment. In contrast, Sweden, Norway and Finland have the most generous welfare states in Europe and therefore should have higher levels of unemployment. Eurostat figures show the reverse to be correct. In January 2012 the UK’s unemployment rate was 8.2 percent, while Sweden and Finland’s was 7.6 percent and Norway’s was 3.2 percent.
The problem with the ‘welfare makes people lazy’ argument is that it is based on a narrow rational economic model of behaviour. This assumes people make rational and informed choices about whether to work or not, when there is considerable evidence to suggest many people have a poor knowledge of the complex benefits system. More importantly, it presumes that money is the primary motivation for work. Esser’s research strongly suggests factors beyond the purely financial are far more influential – such as whether there is any suitable work available, the level of support and training people get from the state and the affordability of childcare. A good illustration of these non-financial factors is contained in Karen Rowlingson’s and Stephen McKay’s 2002 book Lone Parent Families: Gender, Class and the State. The two sociologists note that while “It is common for those on the political right to argue that lone parenthood has risen because women have access to relatively high rates of benefits” the experience of the USA and Sweden contradict this popular view: “The USA has the highest level of lone parenthood in the Western world but its level of social assistance is among the lowest” whereas “Sweden has the largest proportion of lone parents in paid work but the benefit replacement rate is also the highest.”
As well as the negative effects on physical health, it is clear a stingy welfare state can also have a deleterious effect on an individual’s psychological wellbeing. “If people feel like the welfare state demeans them and signifies failure they will experience low personal worth and react against the system that oppresses them”, the left-wing Labour Representation Committee notes. “It is therefore entirely logical that more conditionality, more stigma, and a low financial reward will decrease work morale.”
With Job Seekers Allowance currently set at a depressingly low £71 per week for a single person over 25 and public support for the welfare state dipping, these arguments are very important to have – and win. Because we will only be able to raise unemployment benefits to an adequate living standard, build a more generous welfare state, and create a more humane society, if we nail, once and for all, the myth that a more generous welfare state makes people lazy.