Remaking the relations of work and welfare
Remaking the relations of work and welfare

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Remaking the relations of work and welfare

2 The contingent relations of welfare and work: from workhouse to workfare?

2.1 Background and historical overview

As we saw in Section 1, everyday talk, public discourse and political debates sometimes treat the concepts of ‘welfare’ and ‘work’ as separate spheres of activity, or even binary opposites: welfare or work. This can occur in different ways, for example:

  • an explicit connection is drawn between welfare and work, as though they were directly dependent upon one another: welfare and work, work for welfare, welfare to work;

  • the connection is implicit: welfare and work as interweaving patterns over a lifetime;

  • the connection is treated as an objective, perhaps in the phrase welfare to work;

  • the dependency is more explicit, as in ‘working for welfare’;

  • in some versions, it is clear that welfare is not offered without work, as is suggested by collapsing the two words: ‘workfare’.

All these mixes of the concepts of ‘welfare’ and ‘work’ are captured in the word ‘contingent’: it refers to a set of relations in which welfare and work necessarily connect, but in a very wide variety of ways, from potential link to complete interdependency.

It would be possible to take distinctive welfare systems and ‘map’ them according to the different ways in which the relations between welfare and work have been made at different times, for different social groups and in different places. But, even the briefest mapping leads rapidly towards an important, and perhaps rather startling, realisation: the decades that followed the post-war welfare settlement in the UK were historically unique in a number of ways, because they established a degree of separation between the entitlement to welfare and the obligation to work.

Two points of contrast highlight this. In the UK, the involvement of the centralised state in the relief of the poor after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act made the contingent nature of welfare-work relations more highly visible than they had ever been. The welfare system drew unemployed men, their families and unmarried mothers into workhouses as their sole access to welfare, and so established the principle that state welfare was conditional on commodified work. On the same principle, a century later in the USA nationally provided state welfare began with Roosevelt's New Deal, and the Works Administration Programme, that allowed states to require the involvement of those seeking benefits in public works.

Between these two starting points, the welfare polices that took Tamarla Owens on the bus to Oakland County, and the recent development of welfare-to-work programmes in the UK, have two long and disparate histories. In the UK, the Poor Law shaped provision for the unskilled, for some women and for most racialised minority groups for the best part of a century. The conditional connection between welfare and work was incrementally relaxed for other groups between 1911 and the post-war settlement. From then until the late 1970s, as we have noted, welfare entitlement and work obligation remained much more loosely connected for most of the population.

In the USA, unconditional entitlement was largely restricted to lone parent families with dependent children. The pressures on them to participate in ‘public works’ or ‘community-based’ programmes grew during the 1960s, shifted towards a stronger emphasis on support and training in the 1970s, then began a transition from facilitative welfare-to-work incentives, to mandatory work-for-welfare conditions, with sanctions for those who refused or withdrew, during the 1980s and 1990s (Burghes, 1987; Peck, 2001). In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) made all benefit entitlement entirely conditional upon work, except for lone parents whose first child was below school age. This is the form of relations referred to as workfare.

A parallel trend affected the UK from the 1980s onwards, once the disruption of the post-war welfare settlement had begun (Lewis, 1998). At first, the focus was largely on facilitative incentives, and there was a gradual move towards job-search requirements, participation in workshops and careers advice and vigorous encouragement of lone parents to take work. In 1986, 16- to 18-year-olds lost all benefit entitlement and were required to join youth training programmes, many of which entailed work placement. In 1997, New Labour's New Deal marked the highly significant switch to mandatory forms of participation in work placement or training.


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