The Dutch sometimes find it annoying that most people use the terms ‘Holland’ and ‘the Netherlands’ as synonyms. Holland, they insist, is just one part of the Netherlands, alongside with Limburg, Utrecht, Gelderland and others. Brits who have grown tired of explaining the difference between ‘England’, ‘Great Britain’, ‘the United Kingdom’ and ‘the British Isles’ abroad will see their point. However, one of the quirks of linguistic usage is that when everybody makes the same mistake, it ceases to be a mistake. Continental newspapers can effortlessly write about issues like Scottish independence, where the difference between England and ‘England’ matters, without risking any misunderstandings.
Misunderstandings only arise when two parties use the same term differently, and this is precisely what has happened in the British workfare debate. More on this in a minute.
First of all, it is worth noting that workfare has not yet properly arrived in the UK. We have a few workfare-type elements, but their coverage is so narrow that most welfare recipients will never have heard of them. Nevertheless, anti-workfare protest has already become a proper movement, complete with its own martyr and its own patron saint. Indeed, there are probably more anti-workfare protesters than there are workfare participants. For these critics, the case is already settled: workfare, they claim, has demonstrably been an abysmal failure. They all keep referring to the same piece of evidence, a study commissioned by the DWP titled ‘A comparative review of workfare programmes in the United States, Canada and Australia’.
The protest group Boycott Workfare summarises the study thus:
‘Research for the DWP on workfare concluded that […] workfare has been a failure wherever it has been implemented.’
The Guardian’s summary reads:
‘The DWP has wilfully ignored comparative research it commissioned that found the model to be counter-productive.’
This is also the reading of the bloggers at Left Foot Forward:
‘[W]orkfare simply does not work. A DWP report confirms this.’
And then there’s Cait Reilly, who became the anti-workfare movement’s heroine after taking legal action against the government, arguing that its Work Experience Scheme constituted ‘slave labour’. She also finds:
‘Similar schemes have not worked in other countries […] The Department for Work and Pensions hired experts to find whether "work for your benefit" schemes delivered benefits. After studying similar programmes in Canada, the US and Australia, they found no evidence such schemes increased the chances of gaining employment.’
I won’t discuss the DWP study itself, which is a topic for another article. But it is worth emphasising one of its terminological peculiarities. Most publications on the subject use the terms ‘workfare’ and ‘welfare-to-work’ as synonyms. Not this one.
The study discuses systems in which welfare is not an automatic right, but an entitlement that has to be earned through participation in work-focused activities. ‘Work-focused activities’ can mean a whole range of things, from subsidised work placements in the private sector to supervised job search, preparation for applications and interviews, training courses, community work, and others. In the DWP study, the term ‘welfare-to-work’ denotes the whole package of activities, while the term ‘workfare’ denotes just one element within it: community work. Put differently: workfare is Holland; welfare-to-work is the Netherlands.
Why does that matter? Because one of the study’s key findings is that work placements have generally been more effective than community work programmes. The latter are run outside of the regular labour market, the former are run within it. The step from a work placement to a regular job is therefore a smaller one, and they are also better suited to equip participants with relevant skills.
This is a plausible argument. I am not 100 per cent convinced – could it not be that the more employable cases have been selected for work placements and the more difficult ones for community work? But this is a purely empirical question, not an ideological one. The DWP report is not a critique of conditional welfare per se. It just argues that welfare-to-work schemes should be built in close proximity to the world of work, not in some separate silo.
It is weird that people who see conditional welfare as ‘slave labour’ should have any interest in such findings at all. If you are an abolitionist, you will not be interested in a report which argues that slaves should do less cotton-picking and more wood-chopping instead.