Despite the comments yesterday from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the coalition’s decision to introduce a limited form of workfare into the UK benefits system is a huge step forward. Rather than pushing people into despair these proposals will actually prepare people for work and get them used to the necessary disciplines that are second nature to the majority.
But there is a further reason to congratulate the government on these proposals. For the last 50 years welfare policy has been predicated on the belief that poverty was caused by structural inequalities. According to this view individuals were impotent in the face of large societal forces that unfairly held them back. Thus only government could create change through targeted interventions. Running alongside this view was the belief that government intervention had no impact on the behaviour of individuals or the culture of the society at large.
Of course, there have been many critics of this approach from Bertrand de Jouvenel and Friedrich Hayek at the very birth of the welfare state, to more recent commentators such as Lawrence Mead, Charles Murray and Frank Field. These critics argued that government intervention altered individual behaviour through the creation of a perverse incentive structure, which had the effect of institutionalising the very problems of poverty and inequality that government was trying to solve. The problem therefore was not structural inequality but individual behaviour.
The government’s new welfare proposals are so important because they appear to recognise that government welfare provision can and does alter behaviour. What is needed, therefore, is not more intervention and more spending, but targeted measures that change the incentives that drive individual behaviour. The coalition is seeking to shift millions of people out of a culture of entitlement and towards an obligation to work. People need to know that there is a way out, but they have to earn it.