Voodoo sociology, unemployment and ‘the low-pay no-pay cycle’

by Rob MacDonald, Teesside University


In many parts of the country there are plenty of ‘crap jobs’ – but what is missing are jobs that are rewarding, respectful and lasting. Too much contemporary employment is low-skilled, low paid and insecure; low grade ‘poor work’ that neither lifts people out of poverty nor provides a secure way of living.

The unemployed are shirkers ‘sleeping their life away’ on benefits. Their idleness is a ‘life-style choice’; one that is underwritten by us ‘hardworking families’. Unemployment reflects ‘low aspirations’. Unemployment is caused by a lack of skills, by low qualifications; the unemployed need to catch-up with the new high skills economy. Unemployment is caused by a ‘culture of worklessness’; by ‘welfare dependency’ inculcated through dysfunctional, ‘troubled families’ – some of whom have never known work for three generations or even more. What we need therefore are together regimes of discipline and punishment; heavy doses of ‘Welfare to Work/ Workfare’ and ramped up ‘conditionality’ tests backed by a punishing sanctions regime. The unemployed need to be more like us. Shirkers should be more like us strivers. Them. Us.

This, more or less, is how many of our politicians, across parties, see the problem of unemployment. These views hold a lot of sway with the general public (with ‘welfare reform’ said to be the Tories’ single most electorally popular policy). Research shows that practitioners who work with the unemployed will often sign up to these ideas.

But all of this is what I call voodoo sociology. The term ‘voodoo economics’ came to be applied to the powerful but flawed doctrine of the 1980s Reagan governments that free market economics would create wealth for those at the top which would then ‘trickle down’ to those below. The numb-headed insistence that unemployment is somehow the fault of the unemployed (that they lack something – aspiration, skills, work ethic, a suitably polished CV, whatever) – and that this can be fixed by poking them harder with the pointed sticks of ‘welfare reform’ is the classic voodoo sociology of our time.

There are many ways to demonstrate the stupidities of this sort of thinking. Alan Mackie’s blog for Uncertain Futures neatly dissects some of the claims made in the name of that weasel word, ‘employability’. Another approach is via basic supply-demand economics. If the supply of unemployed workers (e.g. as measured roughly by the official unemployment count) outstrips the demand for workers (as measured roughly by notified job vacancies) there is hint here that demand-side, labour market factors might be at least in part be causal of unemployment. For instance, our research has predominantly been in Middlesbrough, Teesside, in the North East of England. In Middlesbrough in March 2015 there were 3.3 JSA claimants for every notified vacancy. Experts agree that not all vacancies are ‘notified’; there are more jobs on offer than this. Experts also agree, however, that there are more people looking for jobs than claim JSA. At the end of 2014 there were over 28 applications for every single engineering and manufacturing apprenticeship in Teesside. The same pattern can be seen on a bigger canvas. In the US in 2011, the McDonald’s fast food chain held a hiring day. They were looking to recruit 50k new staff. They had 1 million applications! They eventually took on 62k new workers, an acceptance rate of 6.2%, which, as one commentator noted at the time, meant it was harder to get a job at McDonalds than a place at Yale University.

These sorts of statistics still only give a snap-shot picture of a fixed moment in time. A better way to understand the contemporary labour market – and to dispel this form of voodoo sociology – is to look at the dynamic movement of working lives.

  • The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate that although some people are never poor and some are permanently so, around one-fifth of all poverty in the UK can be characterised as ‘recurrent poverty’, i.e. people moving back into poverty recurrently over their working lives (often as a consequence of job loss or family changes).
  • Researchers have estimated that half of those leaving benefits return to them within six months.
  • Lots of young people experience being NEET (‘not in education, employment or training’) but very few arelong-term NEET; churning between this and low quality jobs and training is far more common.
  • Research conducted by DWP in 2013 found that 73% of young adults who made a claim for JSA in 2010-11 had made at least one previous claim in the prior four years and 29% had had four spells on JSA.

Our own research on Teesside provided a qualitative, longitudinal investigation into the realities of ‘the low-pay, no-pay cycle’, i.e. how workers churn between what are typically low-paid, low skilled and insecure jobs at the bottom of the labour market and time out of work (usually but not always in receipt of state unemployment benefits). The main title of the book was Poverty and Insecurity – these seemed to be the two words that did most to sum up the experiences that were recounted to us by men and women, younger and older people alike, who were caught up in the ‘low-pay, no-pay cycle’. Rather flamboyantly, we used Titian’s painting of Sisyphus for the book cover image. Forever rolling a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down at the end of the day seemed to give a feel for the combination of hard work and/ but lack of progress in the lives of the people to whom we talked. It is very difficult to get official estimates of the size of the problem of the ‘low-pay, no-pay cycle’. The facts that we have cited above (particularly about the typicality of repeat benefit claiming), and our own research from Teesside, would suggest that this is a real and significant phenomenon in the UK labour market.

So what does this tell us? One simple lesson is that attempts to divide ‘them’ from ‘us’, to separate ‘shirkers’ from ‘strivers’ and the undeserving indolent from ‘hardworking families’ are ideologically driven. They don’t have a basis in fact. The government’s own research shows this. According to what we found in Teesside, a person might be a ‘hard-working striver’ one month and an ‘unemployed skiver’ the next – and this was overwhelmingly the product of the vagaries of a casualised and insecure labour market that still needs a ready supply of cheap, ‘flexible’ workers. There is no real idle ‘underclass’ of workshy dole scroungers living it up on ‘Benefits Street’.This is modern mythology of a very powerful kind. And of a sort that serves a purpose – to mask the real causes of poverty and unemployment in the UK and, in so doing, to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’.

Republished with thanks to the Social Action and Research Foundation
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