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Welfare creates dependency? It’s a myt

A Reply to Robert Stewart — On Welfare

While Mr Stewart’s first article focused rather generally on the question of “who pays” and the role of the state, his second article zeroed in on the question of welfare. He also raises the question of whether taxation constitutes theft, but for space reasons I’ll not address the appropriation of surplus labour value in the form of profit by capitalists from workers…

The main thesis of Mr Stewart’s attack on welfare is that, rather than helping the disadvantaged, it actually hurts the disadvantaged.

He proceeds to list a wholly unsubstantiated list of the sins of welfare — nowhere does he provide any evidence to back up his claims.

The list reads more as an “argument from authority” (his own) — and as such holds about as much authority accordingly.

He proceeds to list ten consequences of the welfare state, and six reasons for “the failure of welfare”. The core complaints of these lists can be, I think, listed thus:

1) Welfare creates dependency and long-term unemployment.

2) Welfare reduces the work ethic.

3) Welfare is a threat to traditional family values.

Many of his other claims seek to conflate complex social problems as singularly the fault of welfare, and perhaps deserve separate articles in their own right (the education system, the health system, treatment of seniors, etc.).

At the risk of being accused of creating a straw-man argument, I’ll only address what I see the essence of his attack, listed above.

There are remarkably little studies of the impact of welfare in Bermuda, at least that I can find.

However, there is peer-reviewed academic studies of just these questions, and provided we dismiss Bermudian exceptionalism and accept Bermuda will likely reflect such studies, I think it’s worth looking at them. Naturally, there’s a plethora of sources one could cite, but due to space considerations I’ll only cite some of the more recent ones of relevance.

Does welfare create dependency and long-term unemployment?

A 2011 study by MacMillan (Measuring the Intergenerational Correlation of Worklessness) looked at just this question in the UK context, and found that two-generation worklessness (workless parents and grown-up children) are found together in only 0.9% of households. Three-generation worklessness was only found in 0.1% of all households. A 2012 study by Furlong (Intergenerational worklessness: popular myth or miserable reality?), and another 2012 study by Shildrick, et al (Intergenerational Cultures of Worklessness? A Qualitative Exploration in Glasgow and Teeside) came to similar conclusions, with the latter stating:

“…the idea of intergenerational worklessness is a myth – despite an extensive search in areas of high unemployment, we failed to find any families where three generations had never worked and only found two families where two generations had never worked (although there was extensive worklessness in all of our families).”

Looking at the 2015 Budget Brief on Financial Assistance, we also find this quote, in reference to the increase of those using welfare but classified as “able-bodied and under-65”.

“The overall increase in the numbers of applicants which are processed is directly attributed to the shrinking financial resources in our current economic climate, inability to find employment, job losses and redundancies.”

It would seem that in Bermuda there is no dependency and long-term unemployment stemming from welfare. Rather, use of welfare reflects the insecurity and precarity of the labour market which, at least since 2008, have led people of all generations to flip between low-wage and temporary work and unemployment.

Does welfare reduce the work ethic?

The two 2012 studies cited above (Furlong; and Shildrick, et al) also looked at this concern in their studies, and it is worth quoting at length from the latter:

“We also failed to find evidence of a culture of worklessness: our respondents wanted to work and hated being on benefits. The commitment to work was not driven by money, they also thought of work as a source of self-esteem and pride and some engaged in voluntary work. Parents who had spent much of their lives out of work tended to have very strong views about their children’s careers, making sure that they were aware of the importance of work…”

It isn’t that people on welfare don’t want to work — it’s that there’s no jobs available (or the jobs that are available are so low-wage that welfare is still needed), or they don’t have the skills or ability to take advantage of the jobs that are available (and there are limited options available to them to develop these skills or abilities). These two arguments — that welfare creates dependency, long-term unemployment and reduces the work ethic — are myth. They’re a social construction stemming from an ideological position, and not evidence based. While there may well be a tiny minority that could be considered “cheats” or “lazy”, the vast majority of those on welfare are not.

To me it is something of a folly to build social policy on the basis of both myth and the risk of abuse by a minority.

Is welfare a threat to traditional family values?

Mr Stewart himself just asserts this more than his other points, failing even to provide a thread of an argument to understand his assertions here. What, exactly, Mr Stewart is blaming welfare for as regards parenting and families more generally, really isn’t clearly articulated. I find it a rather curious argument myself.

Firstly, the welfare system actually helps keep families together, be it in helping with child-care, reducing the stress of un/under-employment or helping reduce the social isolation (and related health consequences) of seniors and disabled citizens. So this one, too, is more myth than reality.

Secondly, I think one could question whether marriage or a stable two-parent family, and other “traditional family values” (itself largely a myth) really matters all that much. It’s wrong to be stigmatising single-parents or non-traditional families more generally, as somehow inherently negative or problematic.

A lot of what Mr Stewart is arguing is fiction — it’s made up to suit his ideological purposes. Our welfare system is not producing long-term dependency, eroding work ethic or causing a break-down of family units.