A consternated Fern Brady writes: “I interviewed about 150 families who will be directly affected by the cuts, I found the majority held the kind of attitudes that make the Daily Mail’s headlines look positively left wing. […] Logically, I’d expect those on the sharp end of things to be pro-welfare. But if anything, many interviewees had internalised a Thatcherite every-man-for-himself mentality […] In a way you have to marvel at it. How do you get people to accept a policy that’s inexcusably prejudiced against the most vulnerable in society? Make sure they take on the same mean-spirited, self-serving attitude that influenced that policy in the first place. Genius.”
After reviewing a number of surveys on the issue, John Harris comes to the same conclusion: “When it comes to big-picture stuff, a majority of us seem to believe in the notion of welfare dependency (once a controversial trope peddled by the nasty Tory right, but now as firmly built into the public consciousness as the idea that the poor spend too much of their money on booze, fags and Sky TV). […] As against the idea that disaffection with the benefits system amounts to a petit bourgeois roar from the suburbs, a lot of the noise gets louder as you head into the most disadvantaged parts of society.”
Suzanne Moore puts it most succinctly: “These “welfare” cuts do indeed have much public support. Are the public stupid, or simply people who don’t read the Guardian? Well, yes.”
The authors have to perform extraordinary logical contortions to reconcile these findings with their worldview (see here for a hilarious example), but there is a less far-to-seek alternative explanation: Maybe the notion that some recipients overuse the welfare system is widespread because there is a little bit of truth in it.
If we want to get an idea of what constitutes a typical daily routine in neighbourhoods with high levels of worklessness, we do not have to rely on clichés or anecdotes. We can look at time use surveys, such as the Multinational Time Use Study (MTUS) published by Oxford University, or the Harmonized European Time Use Survey (HETUS) published by Eurostat. One paper has used these datasets to explore differences in the daily routines of the employed and the workless population, and in particular, to find out how much time the latter dedicate to work search activities. Their UK data refer to 2000/01, a boom time with very little unemployment, so obviously, these figures tell us nothing about those who have lost their job in the current recession and who are now struggling to find work again. But they do tell us something about the non-cyclical component of unemployment.
In the UK, work search activities among the unemployed took up, on average, between six and eight minutes per day. This is an extremely skewed average, the result of 86–90 per cent of the respondents declaring not having looked for work at all on the respective day, while the remaining 10–14 per cent have spent considerable time looking for work. Time spent on other activities is reported only for an average of seven western European countries. But in so far as data is available for the country level, the difference between the UK and the neighbour countries does not seem to be too large, so the European figures are still somewhat informative.
Time-use survey data: Minutes per weekday spent on selected activities, Western Europe
|Voluntary, religious and civic activities|
|Home production, caring activities|
|Sleeping, eating, shopping, sports|
|Watching TV, socialising etc.|
The authors’ summary: “In each region, the unemployed sleep substantially more than the employed. […] The unemployed spend considerably more time than the employed in leisure and social activities. A large share of this difference is due to TV watching”.
Such studies always deserve a good measure of caution. The sample size and time period covered are limited, and the data cannot show why people who have not looked for work have not done so. Some may have given up searching for work, after having searched extensively in the past. Some may have been looking for work in different ways, which would not count as classic work search activities. Some may have been deterred by obstacles that a simple survey cannot capture. And so on.
But with all these caveats in mind, self-reporting is vastly more credible than journalists’ fantasies. There is overuse of the welfare system, and to sort it out, we have to get the incentives right.
As examples of what constitutes a ‘work search activity’, the survey mentions: reading and replying to job advertisements, updating a CV, calling or visiting a labour office or agency, job interviews, and working on a portfolio.