The idea of demanding work in exchange for benefits crops up repeatedly. We therefore know quite a lot about how work-for-benefit schemes operate in practice. Looking back at the various schemes of the interwar years, it is possible to draw a number of conclusions that are worth considering before any such initiative is adopted today.
- Expect to spend a lot of money. The British government work camps system, which ran between 1929 and 1939, processed around 200,000 long term unemployed men. This might sound like a lot, but it was a tiny proportion of the total unemployed. And although successive governments considered a significant expansion, they decided that they could not afford to do so.
- Supervision is very challenging. Even at the best of times, the British Ministry of Labour supervisors found it difficult to keep everyday order in the camps, and in some respects they didn’t bother, but rather accepted that there would be a certain level of violence between the men. This was a particular problem between 1929 and 1931, when the Labour Government made attendance compulsory for the long term unemployed. As a result, the Ministry of Labour always objected to any later attempts to reintroduce compulsion.
- Training is minimal. The trainees are reluctant to be there, and therefore their motivation to learn is very low. This was again a particular problem between 1929 and 1931, during the period of compulsory attendance.
- The work has to have significance. The great success among interwar work camp movements was Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps in the USA. Here, the men undertook work of real national significance, which could then be publicised across the nation, and celebrated. Even today, older socialists in the USA remember the CCC with affection.
- Job placement rates are low. Men who went through the British government work camps were no more likely to find work at the end than those who did not. In some years, the job placement rates were lower for the trainees than for those outside the camps, presumably because the trainees spent their time working on the land rather than hearing about jobs.
So the bottom line is that compulsory work-for-benefits will only work if it is universal, expensive and prestigious – if we assume that its main aim is to get the unemployed into work and off benefits. In this context, it’s worth noting that the UK Government’s own mandatory work programme has similarly been judged expensive and ineffective – though this has not stopped them from extending it.
One other possible aim of mandatory work-for-benefit is, of course, to win political approval. There is always a constituency of voters who want government to be tougher on welfare claimants. Pleasing this group is a lot easier than it was in the 1930s, when the National Unemployment Workers Movement led a number of lively campaigns against what it called “slave camps”. No similar movement exists today, and politicians can accordingly expect little or no organised protest against their treatment of the unemployed.