Work-for-Benefits – some lessons from the 1930s

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


9 thoughts on “Work-for-Benefits – some lessons from the 1930s

    • I hope I am wrong, Annie, but I cannot see anything to compare with the NUWM. The archives that I have seen so far convinced me that the Ministry of Labour was worried by the scale and influence of the NUWM, and that the NUWM’s protests led the Ministry to decide not to pursue its plans.

      • Just as importantly, the NUWM so scared the regime that its leaders were routinely arrested, and I believe that in the late 1930s when it had all blown over, many were paid compensation. The Jarrow March, by way of contrast, is remembered because it was safe and respectable. Decent working men doing decent things and not trying to overturn the existing order…

  1. The other thing is the imposition of sanctions, which is already happening a lot, leaving people with no option other than charity or crime (or suicide)

  2. What were the demands of the NUWM, besides not wanting to be stuffed into slave camps?

    I think we’re at a difficult point now because there’s been a 30 year drip drip of increasing conditionality for benefits, and people have developed the habit of going on the defensive about each new condition, rather than attacking the system as a whole with their own ideas. The current accelerated ratchetting up of conditions has left people’s heads spinning. Maybe now that our backs are against the wall, and people are going hungry…but the propaganda that somehow austerity is all claimants’ ‘fault’ seems to have gone very deep into people’s psyches, whether they’re embittered wage-slaves or without a job themselves.

    The work available in this country has also changed dramatically, and of course although it was certainly around in the 30s, a critique of work, or more precisely ‘jobs’ has grown, starting with some strands of feminism in the 70s but carrying on still, especially now with the pre-eminence of computers and other technology making much work which used to be done by a human with a wage obsolete. And why not, as long as people are not left to starve and can use the time in creative ways?

    There are many people who simply don’t want to have their lives defined by the market, or what the market will pay for. Meanwhile the unions, Labour, and Tories continue to trot out the old lines about any old job being ‘good for you’ – the only difference being that the unions and Labour insist on some kind of wage. But that still doesn’t deal with the precariousness of most jobs these days, whether zero-hour, part-time, short-contract etc – and the fact that many people would rather live with the uncertainty than be tied down to a 40 hour week. For those who need absolute certainty of income for whatever reason, however, the change has been devastating.

    The only thing that gives me hope at the moment, besides the imaginative actions of UK Uncut, DPAC and Boycott Workfare, is the growing movement for unconditional basic income (UBI). It is bigger on the European continent than here so far, but now it is growing here as a response to the Tories taking conditions on welfare to a point where it feels like the only way to affectively fight the increasing sadism is to get rid of conditions altogether. Some elites are also worried that so many jobs are disappearing, and the only way to keep the masses from torching their houses is to give them some regular income independent of any other work they may be doing. What the unions don’t seem to understand is that a basic income would actually help people fight for better wages all round. I like the fact that there are good arguments for it from across the political spectrum (and ferocious ones against as well), and that it would support the huge amount of work people do for each other for free in terms of child-raising, caring for friends and relatives, volunteering in community projects, etc. All the stuff without which any waged labour would be impossible, also not really recognised (still!) by Labour or the unions as actual ‘work’.

    There is a European Citizens Initiative calling on the EU to study the policy; I suggest people vote for it: Although unfortunately it isn’t a call to implement it asap, it will get UBI further pushed up the political agenda. With UBI we’d be free to develop our ‘social capital’ for ourselves and each other, and better able to resist its exploitation for monetary profit.

  3. There will be no new movement to stop this due to government and media interference which wasn’t possible back then. Modern surveillance of the populace is there primarily to njip it in the bud. All hope is lost!

  4. Hope is never lost, its just going to be bloodier, and more people will go to jail- and eventually most of them will be let out, and probably compensated.
    There will always be more of us than there are of them.

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