‘Welfare reform’ unfairly scapegoats the poor and disabled.

10:48 pm - December 14th 2008

by Laurie Penny    

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I’m bloody angry today. I am sitting in a house from which my current family and I may soon be evicted, because we have failed to make our rent, because we have failed to gain employment in this recession-bitten economy, we are paying off debts, and the tiny amount of benefits to which we are entitled have failed to arrive. We are spending our time watching ripped downloads off the interwebs and living on fried potatoes and tea and cigarettes re-rolled from the butt-ends of what we’d imagined our futures would be.This is not romantic. Poverty and hopelessness are not romantic. They’re a fucking pain, is what they are.

When I met James Purnell in September he was half-cut, coming out of a party and manifestly didn’t want to be talking to me, but he took the time to explain why he thought his welfare reforms were going to help the poor and incapacitated. He genuinely impressed me. Three months on, with the recession steaming in and all my friends and loved ones poor and depressed and rejected by a nominally caring Labour welfare state, I’m beginning to think we’ve been had. I have a visceral fondness for energetic, hobbit-looking men, but not when they instruct the needy to bend over and spread for a rogering, telling them in breathless pants that it’s for their own good. Let’s take a look at that party line:

Myth: ‘work is the best way out of poverty.’

Fact: work is the best way out of poverty provided that there is work available, and provided that that work does not pay a poverty wage. Most of the journalists and politicians smugly licking Purnell’s shiny arse on this one are lucky enough to have well-paid, fulfilling careers. Have you ever worked in a call centre? You spend nine solid hours in a cramped, light-sputtering cage being bullied by your bosses and harassed by clients. The work is soul-eatingly dull and draining and when you come home, blinking, dried-out, feeling ancient and depressed, you have to do it all again tomorrow, and you are still poor. You are still poor because you are being paid way below what might constitute a living wage, and you have no career prospects to keep you motivated. You get to choose between this and staying on benefits, being ever so slightly more crushingly poor but more physically and mentally well. What will you choose? Note that call centre work is the only work many school leavers and graduates in the cities are currently able to find. Treating people like criminals for failing to find jobs that aren’t there is kicking us while we’re down. And that is what “a system where virtually everyone has to do something in return for their benefits” means. Yes, it’s right that people take responsibility for their own lives – but what creates poverty, worklessness and drug and alcohol abuse is not moral decline.

Today I spoke to Angie (not her real name), a DWP employee. She told me:

‘I work in “Welfare to Work.” Work is only a way out of poverty when there’s work and it pays a living wage. The best way out of poverty in the long term is training so you can get better work. I see people day in, day out who are claiming incapacity benefit or income support. Out of the 50 odd people on my caseload 2 are “playing the system,” the rest are people who are either unquestionably far far too ill to work or people who have been disenfranchised by their illness and by the consequences of the UK’s changing labour market. And the government expects me to get 6 of those people into work each month. In a recession. It’s crazy.
We don’t need more blame for the working class. We need proper education for everyone and a society that actually values people’s work with a living wage for everyone.

The alleged lack of virtue of the working classes is now being exploited in order to offload the blame for ‘Broken Britain’ on a group of people who have less to do with it than anyone else. The political and financial classes refuse to take responsibility for where they have landed us, and are now telling us that it’s our fault, because we are just not trying hard enough.

The Tories, of course, have if anything a more ingrained contempt for the poor, and are likely to show it very soon. But I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough with trying so very, very hard to be a Labour apologist out of fear of the Tories. The Labour DWP’s strategy is not just not good enough: it’s actively immoral, scapegoating the neediest and making it more difficult for us to work and live just at the time when we should be carrying our wounded.

It just saddens me that by the time Purnell sees the wrong end of a dole queue in 2010, it’ll be way too late for him to help even himself.

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About the author
Laurie Penny is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a journalist, blogger and feminist activist. She is Features Assistant at the Morning Star, and blogs at Penny Red and for Red Pepper magazine.
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Reader comments

Chris Dillow doesn’t appear to think these reforms with have any real negative effect

Your broader cultural point about stigmatization still stands and is very important.

“and disabled.”

Thanks, Laurie. We make the list too rarely for me, so whatever’s being said about us, it’s good to be on a list with a ‘mainstream’ minority.

Good article, and thanks for getting the contribution from Angie.

Today’s welfare reform fun fact is this: there were more investment bankers involved in the development of the Welfare Reform bill than there were people who are out of work or working in minimum wage jobs.

More on this, and what we can do about it, later today.

‘I am sitting in a house from which my current family and I may soon be evicted, because we have failed to make our rent, because we have failed to gain employment in this recession-bitten economy’

1 What on earth is a “current family ” ?
2 How are you not able to find work ? There is work , would you like me to find work for you , you seem to be able lto type and string a few words together . There are endless sources of help for you and plenty of jobs.
I f you are unable to find work shoudl you not at least be in training ?It is difficult if you have to pay your way whilst trying to construct a career but thats only what everyone else has to do and these are the very people whose money you want to take . The people who worked hard and made sacrifices .

5. Alisdair Cameron

Very well said, Laurie. I’ve ranted on at great length all over the place on the plain vindictive bullying immorality of these ‘reforms’, especially with regard to mental health (in which I work), so won’t add much more.
What I will say (and before any accusations come flying in, I bleeding hate the Tories, okay) is that I too, am at the point where I can no longer stomach the New labour tribal apologists: scapegoat the poor and disabled, give welfare to bankers, keep privatising the NHS, restrict all our civil liberties, pursue illegal wars abroad. Somehow, we’re meant to accept that this authoritarian and venal bunch should be allowed to continue in power because they’re not wearing the dreaded blue rosette (though Brown did have Maggie round for tea).
I’m hoping not to come over all Peter-Finch-in-Network-y, but IT’S NOT F*CKING GOOD ENOUGH. New labour have delivered enough disastrous deal-breakers for anyone of a genuinely liberal disposition to deny them their vote for forever more. Sure, there’ll be some bullshit-spouting tribalist who parrot Brownite bollocks down-thread (SureStart, yadda yadda,ignoring the fact it’s become costly creches for the middle classes… minimum wage, sure, but it ain’t a living wage… tax credits, do me a favour, don’t tax low-earners in the first place) but really their loyalty to the party overrides principle.The entryists ripped the principles from the Labour party, constsntly proiritisng getting into power. Now, retaining that power is their only principle and if that mean putting the boot into the most vulnerable (Purnell), or attempting to impose ID cards and ever more draconian rules on public order (Smith) then they have no qualms.
I’m not for a moment saying the Tories would do better, or that they deserve a liberal-minded person’s vote, as they wouldn’t and don’t, but that new labour cannot and must not be given licence to oppress simply because they are not the tories.

disenfranchised by the consequences of the UK’s changing labour market

What on earth does that mean?

Close to one million hard working immigrants have managed to find employment in the UK in the last few years. They don’t appear to have been “disenfranchised.”

In a recession. It’s crazy.

Now that is a good point.

But the principle of these reforms is sound enough, even if it is happening years too late.

Laurie, haven’t you been trying to sell your talents round think-tanks and lobby groups for the last few weeks? Not likely to be the most lucrative of sectors for now, especially if you were limiting yourself to the leftwing orgs that are going to be losing funding while Labour’s future electoral prospects remain limited.

“you seem to be able to type and string a few words together” – Unfortunately, NM, journalism appears to be a dying sector. Marketing still has prospects though. When I was a student, I handed out flyers at tube stations which at the time was surprisingly well paid per hour (like £8.50). Not sure what its like today. Friends of mine seem to have few problems getting local public sector admin jobs (police stations, NHS offices, social services). They can be quite flexible and its enough to get the office experience that private sector agencies like to see.

8. Mike Killingworth

(Re-posted from an earlier thread on this topic, since it seems even more appropriate here)

I want to look at one particular subset of claimant – the 50+ individual who is claiming incapacity benefit on mental health grounds.

It’s reasonable to expect such a person to organise their lives around the management of their illness. Anyone in the mental health field will say that one of the things they should do to this end is to “avoid vexatious persons” (as the Desiderata puts it).

One thing you can be sure of is that the workplace will contain at least one such vexatious person. They may have a resentment couched in terms of “identity politics”; they may think your job doesn’t really exist and the bit of it that does could be better done by themselves, with a pay rise; or you may remind them of someone else who has seriously hacked them off in the past – or they may just be bent and fear you’ll expose them (all of which have happened to me at one time or another).

Dealing with such people requires a good deal of energy and life-skills which, I think we can safely assume, our hypothetical claimant won’t have. Of course, politicians, who by definition thrive on conflict with the vexatious – because they almost all are themselves – are hardly likely to give this line of thought the time of day.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, why should people already in work be subjected to new colleagues with a history of mental illness? Does the government perhaps secretly think that work is too easy and should be made more difficult? There is, after all, a management theory – and for all any of us know David Freud subscribes to it – that if someone is performing their job well all that proves is that the expectations of their boss are too low.

What a bizarre comment.

Newmania – ‘There is work , would you like me to find work for you , you seem to be able lto type and string a few words together . There are endless sources of help for you and plenty of jobs.’

Yes please? As long as it’s not in Lewes. Godawful place.

Nick and NM: The reason I’m talking about my family (adopted brothers, brother’s partners, and my fiance) is that I’m currently in the best situation. I’m very lucky in that I’ve been able to afford the necessary training, and I have managed to secure a part-time job, paying me a half-wage but I can just about get by. And I’m applying elsewhere all the time.

The rest of my household haven’t been so lucky. Two of us are working minimum wage jobs and paying off debts, leaving us barely enough money to eat, and the other two are still looking for work – and despite applying everywhere and going to interviews, nothing is forthcoming.

I don’t think, NM, that you actually recognise the scale of the problem here.


Meanwhile, back in the real world, why should people already in work be subjected to new colleagues with a history of mental illness? Does the government perhaps secretly think that work is too easy and should be made more difficult?

People with histories of mental illness aren’t monsters. Often they make excellent workers and colleagues. About fifty years ago, people were making the same arguments as to why we shouldn’t have women in the workforce in jobs alongside men (the menz would get distracted and their jobs would be more difficult) and, indeed, the same arguments as to why black and BME people shouldn’t be hired.

I have a history and current experience of mental illness. That doesn’t stop me, it just means I need to make reasonable adjustments to my life and work.

12. Luis Enrique

I’m still struggling to get my head round you characterisation of working in a call centre, let alone how you manage to condense the welfare reforms down to “telling us that it’s our fault, because we are just not trying hard enough.”

It’s about 15 years since I worked in a call centre, but I still know a bunch of people who do and have done for years. I don’t think they see their lives in the same light that you do. Perhaps you could come and meet them for a pint after work in Chicago Rocks, and explain to them how dire their lives are. Would you also describe working in a factory, in a warehouse, down a mine, on a farm etc. etc. in such hysterical terms? Do you envisage the arrival of an economy where everybody has a lovely fulfilling middle class job any time soon?

You seem to think you are making an important point that work is only the way out of poverty if you can a) find a job and b) it pays a non-poverty wage. How could it be any other way? I know people take a pretty dim view of the current administration, but I think this idea might have occurred to one or two of them.

13. Mike Killingworth

[12] Laurie said

People with histories of mental illness aren’t monsters. Often they make excellent workers and colleagues

And often they don’t. This can happen either because they don’t acknowledge their problem and so “act out” in ways which distress their colleagues, and impair the efficiency of the organisation. In this case, the HR department won’t have a clue, and will simply blame rather than support line management. Or it can happen because the individual concerned knows what their problem is, is up-front about it, and about what they need to do to manage their condition: this can also be stressful for colleagues, who say “why should we have to put up with this on top of everything else” – yes, in a workplace in which everyone was emotionally grown-up that wouldn’t happen, but such workplaces are few and far between.

Perhaps my view of the workplace is biassed by the fact that I worked in local authority housing departments, which are riddled with characters suffering from low self-esteem and a few self-promoters that no one ever seemed able to see through… but I think there is a more general point: the workplace encourages transactional, manipulative interactions – it brings out what Eric Fromm called the “adapted child” in all of us.

If you heard that a government was going to introduce a policy in the sure and certain knowledge that one if its effects would be to increase the suicide rate, wouldn’t you wonder what on earth the government thought it was doing? Yet that is exactly what Purnell’s proposals will do, and apparently no one gives a damn.


I’m going by my partners’ and best friends’ experiences of call-centre work. I haven’t worked in one myself (partly because I was warned off by said friends) but I’ve had really shitty jobs: I worked in fast food and as a shop-front assistant being paid peanuts to have tourists touch me up.

Any and all of the jobs you mention can be easily improved by bosses treating their employees less like chattel and paying them a living wage. The problem with low-end work isn’t the fact that it’s not a ‘lovely, fulfilling, middle-class job’ – it’s that an honest day’s work is cheapened and made into something that must be suffered through rather than something that bestows dignity.

Mike – I really don’t get your point. Are you saying, then, that people with mental health difficulties should be barred from the workplace, even if they don’t acknowledge their problems? Would you say the same about people with physical disabilities? Because for sure people in wheelchairs also need special treatment – should they, too, be denied those allowances?

The stigma associated with mental disability runs incredibly deep – clearly you’re one of the many employees who is still innately prejudiced against a certain section of disabled people, and believes that they are right to be.

Well said Luis – that is exactly the sort of attitude that welfarism breeds – it’s the “I’m too good to do a dull, poorly paid, dead end job” (prove it then by doing it well, learning from it and moving on)

or the

“There aren’t any decent jobs round here” (maybe not for people who pissed away their free education, a luxury in most of the world)

or the

“What’s the point of working, I’m better off on benefits” (because if you stay on benefits for long no one will ever want to hire you, you’re setting an appaling role model for your kids, disnggaing from wider society and making yourself psychologically toxic

I started my working life on a building site, graduated to shop assistant, and now have a resonably secure white collar job, a degree and a professional qualification. I don’t get it over night, nor by sitting on my backside moaning about how unfair it all is.

“Well said Luis – that is exactly the sort of attitude that welfarism breeds – it’s the “I’m too good to do a dull, poorly paid, dead end job”

That’s not what he said though is it, he said that over-educating people made them like that, not welfare! Get your gripes straight, guys.

Mike & Laurie: Obviously it completely depends upon what the mental illness happens to be. Someone with chronic schizophrenia is utterly different to someone with well-treated depression. So you can’t talk in generalities as you both are (although Mike more so). Arguably, the whole concept of “mental illness” encompassing everything from schizophrenia to eating disorders is a deeply unhelpful one. It encourages people to think of severe illnesses as less severe than they really are, and conversely, to see mild adjustment problems as serious illnesses.

17. Mike Killingworth

Laurie, let me see if I can explain myself better.

When you find a job, there is something you can know for certain about it. Whoever hires you will have done so only because they can’t – yet – get a machine to do the work involved or someone in Asia to do it for a fraction of what you’ll cost them. They will know this, and they will project their resentment against this state of affairs onto you. It may of course seem quite the opposite at first, they may say how pleased they are that you’re joining the outfit and so on and so forth – but when they say this they will be lying to themselves. And when people lie to themselves, they are poisoning themselves from the inside and are in no circumstances to be trusted.

So – we have a situation where you feel a need to trust someone whom you ought not to trust. This is going to eat at you from inside and make you feel worse about yourself.

And the same thing is true of all your colleagues. Perhaps they will deal with it positively, such as exbiting a high level of trade union consciousness. More likely the place will be full of backbiting and resentment in which people gain a temporary “fix” by taking it out on someone else. Disability – whether mental or physical – is only relevant to the extent that it provides an obvious “hook” for such resentments to be played out.

Yes, of course it’s good for the State, and for society as a whole, for the employment rate to be as high as possible. But the government is also claiming – and Gordon Brown, may God have mercy on his soul, really believes – that work is good for the individuals who do it. There isn’t a scrap of evidence for that proposition, and a shedload of studies in industrial psychology to the opposite conclusion. Work, as Philip Larkin said, is a toad that squats on our lives.

One final point. Economic theory teaches that the market price is the marginal price. That is to say, the pay rate for the job is set at that level which will induce the most reluctant (that is to say, the most resentful, bitter and twisted) individual to stay in the job. There is a very real sense in which you are paid what you are paid not because that’s what the job’s “worth” – “worth” has no sense under capitalism – but as a compensation payment to put up with the most tiresome, disagreeable and bigoted colleague on the premises.

18. Mike Killingworth

[17] A fair point. I would still doubt though, that hiring someone with any degree of mental illness is ever the optimal choice for an employer – they’d need to be pretty special for the extra cost of supporting them to be worth the employer’s while.

The reason there are quotas for physical disability is precisely because the extra support costs a physically disabled worker brings with them make poor business sense.

19. Luis Enrique

It really would help if rather than talking about ‘the unemployed’ the discussion was based around different kinds of unemployment and different reasons etc. Of course it is wrong to say in general people are unemployed because they think they are “too good to work in a call centre”, for example. However, that might to true of some unemployed people. What proportion of the unemployed are so because they don’t wish to take the jobs on offer? Knowing this would make discussions of welfare reform a lot more fruitful. Of course only a proportion of the unemployed are so because they prefer to live on benefits (‘play the system’). Why don’t we see people on all sides of this debate saying roughly what proportion of the unemployed they think can be characterised as playing the system or workshy or whatever? Without that, this ‘debate’ consists of just slinging generalisations back and forth.

Likewise, Laurie, it might help if you were clearer about which working class jobs – scaffolders, call centre workers, shop assistants, delivery drivers, security guards, warehouse workers, etc. you see as “cheapened” and where people are treated like “chattels” and which “bestow dignity” and pay a “living wage” and whether and why you think these things are changing over time. You depiction of working in a call centre in your original post is perhaps only true of a proportion of jobs in call centres, and it makes a difference whether that proportion is 5% or 75%

“A fair point. I would still doubt though, that hiring someone with any degree of mental illness is ever the optimal choice for an employer – they’d need to be pretty special for the extra cost of supporting them to be worth the employer’s while.”

What extra cost? In the majority of cases of what is currently called “mental illness” there wouldn’t be one. This is my whole point – you’re thinking of everyone with “mental illness” as being disabled and needing extra support. Just not true. (Although conversely, if you believe that all people with schizophrenia need is understanding and acceptance, you’re equally wrong. They’re ill.)

21. Mike Killingworth

[21] I certainly agree about schizophrenics. I don’t know how you can be so sure that there wouldn’t be extra costs associated with, for example, ensuring that people with chronic depression didn’t take sick leave because of it – and that additional sick leave is a cost, as is providing support to prevent it.

There’s a more general point, too. One reason why employers prefer immigrants to indigenous labour is because they feel less affect towards them – local cafés hereabouts employ language students as waitresses because they feel less bad about sacking them than would about sacking citizens.

OK true, I can see how all other things being equalyou’d probably rather employ someone with no history of depression than someone with one (unless you’re hiring bar-staff at a goth club) , but then you could say the same about thousand other things. All other things being equal I’d rather have employees who are super-intelligent, super-motivated, strong, agile, charismatic and beautiful. Like me.

Ahem. The point is there’s no such thing as the perfect employee. I’d much rather hire someone with a history depression than someone who comes across as a bit of a twat in the interview. What I don’t like is this idea that “mental illness” is anything other than one among many factors. As I keep saying… most “mental illness” as currently termed, is pretty mild.

James (and others) – please don’t interpret those posts of mine as undermining Laurie’s points at all. I was playing devil’s advocate and perhaps engaging in a little wishful thinking. If Purnell is sincere – and he may be – this white paper is as nasty as Laurie says.
And even if he’s insincere, there’s a danger that a Tory government would change what (I hope) would be a mere box-ticking charade into a genuine harrassment of the unemployed.

“it’s the “I’m too good to do a dull, poorly paid, dead end job” (prove it then by doing it well, learning from it and moving on)”

Conversely there is also the problem that employers won’t take you on for a dead end job if they believe you’ll want to move on shortly for a better job. When I was unemployed that was my main problem, no employer saw the point in giving someone with a masters degree a job that required no qualifications. Yet I couldn’t get jobs that I was qualified for because of a lack of experience, until I got lucky one day after 11 months of trying (I suspect nobody else applied for it as the company concerned didn’t advertise the position).

Its also quite amusing that even in the current climate, the resident tories still think unemployment is due to lazyness. Perhaps they attribute unemployment in the 1930s to the invention of the duvet?

Targetting the neediest in our society whilst IGNORING how much could be saved by slashing the budgets of the ‘jobs for the boys QUANGOs’ that G Brown esquire promised to cull ,displays yet again the self serving and greedy political class and their bootlickers.
New Labour has presided over the creation of a quango superstate that spends nearly £170 billion a year – more than five times the budget of the Ministry of Defence.
‘Call me Dave’ and his crew are no different with their pretend concerns for the electorate whilst lining their own pockets with inlated expenses and salaries.

It is little wonder that my friends and colleagues are cynical and indifferent to elections and would welcome the opportunity to be able to cast a vote for .’None of theAbove’
Richard Pryor in Brewsters Millions articulates the views of an overwhelming majority.

Oh please Peter, we all know the EU is a superstate, Britain is a *nanny* state. It makes no sense to call a single country a superstate. As I’ve said before you people really need to get your gripes straight!

“Its also quite amusing that even in the current climate, the resident tories still think unemployment is due to lazyness. Perhaps they attribute unemployment in the 1930s to the invention of the duvet?”

Of course not, it was caused by excessive government intervention.

And the Tories here are being accused of compounding their gripes, but surely thats what this post has done by associating Laurie’s specific position (educated, trained) and trying to expand it into a wider point about everyone else in the job market.

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