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Wednesday, 16th April 2014

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Back to the workhouse

So the latest wheeze from a government intent on dealing with a deficit caused by the rich is to continue punishing the poor for being poor, this time in the shape of a plan to make the unemployed perform four week periods of compulsory unpaid work on pain of having their benefits stopped for up to three months.

Whoever would have thought that the workhouse, that infamous institution associated with Victorian times and which lives on in the work of Charles Dickens, would inch every closer to becoming a reality once again in the 21st century?

Currently, Jobseekers Allowance for adults over the age of 25 stands at £65.40 per week. For those under 25 it is £50.95. Neither amount can by any stretch be described as an exorbitant. On the contrary, the current level of Jobseekers Allowance is not enough to afford anything approaching what most people in work would consider a decent quality of life. And yet since the general election, the ConDem coalition has focused an inordinate amount of its attention on attacking those in receipt of Jobseekers Allowance, as well as those in receipt of other benefits, such as Incapacity and Housing Benefit. This is done under the rubric of an extremely elastic interpretation of the word progressive, one especially promoted by the Lib Dem half of the coalition to fit in with how they like to view themselves, even if according to the recent opinion polls hardly anybody else does anymore.

As for the distorted prism through which the Tories view society, this can only be understood in terms of class. Despite protestations to the contrary by Mr Cameron et al., this is a political party whose abiding objective is the promotion of the interests of the rich and big business at the expense of the poor and the working class. In times of deep recession, when the rate of profit falls, we see this in its most unvarnished form.

Unemployment is a stressful experience. The stigma, social opprobrium, indignity and financial hardship involved flies in the face of right wing notions of people lounging around luxurious accommodation living it up. The sense of alienation involved can lead to crime, stress related illness, and various other social and human maladies. And yet despite this the Coalition intends exacerbating rather than alleviating them with attack after attack.

According to the Office for Budget Responsibility currently there are five applicants for every new job. With the government about to send half a million public sector jobs into oblivion, this figure will rise in the New Year. Yet despite this the only proposals the Coalition have come up with thus far have been informed by the view that anyone claiming benefits is automatically a workshy scrounger. The insidious aspect to this is the manner in which, helped along by the tabloid press, this overt campaign to demonise benefit claimants and the unemployed has been configured to divide society and distract attention away from the real problem in our society – the obscene wealth of the undeserving rich.

The inspiration for the Coalition’s raft of draconian proposals on welfare emanates from the US, where in 1996, under pressure from a Republican controlled Congress, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed into law legislation which placed a time bar on unemployment benefits, along with stringent obligations forcing people into low paid work regardless of personal circumstances, such as childcare for single mothers, health issues, and so on.

In the US the level of inequality is higher than any other industrialised economy, with poverty fluctuating between 13 to 17% at any given time according to the US Census Bureau. As with previous British governments, both Labour and Conservative, every US administration since the 1980s has placed its faith in a free market solution to economic growth, with a commensurate neglect when it comes to social and economic justice. The welfare system acts as a ballast of minimum demand required in any capitalist economy, and by removing it, or even rolling it back, the effect on the economy as a whole will be a deleterious one.

Creating demand in the shape of new jobs should be the priority of any government in a time of deep recession. Punishing those without work is the priority of those who govern not for the country but for a particular class.


Front page image: a scene from 19th Century Britain: Inmates of the workhouse at Caersws, Wales. Those who were unable to find jobs in the market economy were forced to labour without wages in order to be provided with food and shelter.