There's nothing neoliberal about work for the dole

OK, so this story comes from Australia where they might be far enough away not to be quite up to speed with things. But the idea that people should work for the dole is not in fact some appalling apparition leaping from the fevered imaginations of neoloberals. It's not, in fact, even a liberal idea. It's an entirely social democratic one: you know, soft left sorta thing?

A favourite policy of talkback callers everywhere, work for the dole is also an idolised measure for the right side of politics where old-fashioned conservative selfishness dovetails nicely with the extremist economic demands of economic neoliberalism. The idea is that to receive the sub-poverty-level subsistence Centrelink payment of $250 week, dole recipients will be mandated into forced labour or deprived of subsistence completely. Currently mooted are plans for the unemployed to be mandated to pick up rubbish in the not-for-profit sector or work in aged care homes as maintenance workers.

Ah, no. Here is the impeccably social democratic and soft left M'Lord Layard on the subject from 15 years ago or so:

This long-term unemployment is a huge economic waste. For people who have been out of work for a long time become very unattractive to employers and easily get excluded from the world of work. So it often happens that employers feel a shortage of labour even when there are many people long-term unemployed, with the result that inflation rises even in the presence of mass unemployment. Thus a major objective must be to reduce or eliminate the long-term unemployment caused by welfare dependency. There are two possible approaches – “stick” and “carrot”. The evidence suggests that much the best approach is a combination of the two. This combined approach is now being used increasingly in Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands and of course in the U.S. for single mothers on welfare. In consequence in these countries there have been dramatic falls in unemployment consistent with a given level of vacancies – which in most other countries continues to rise.

The argument is extremely simple. People who are long term unemployed drop out of the labour force entirely. This is both a waste of their lives and also of the things that they could be producing for the rest of us. We therefore want policies which keep the long term unemployed in that labour force: even up to and including make work programs while they collect their unemployment pay. For this does indeed keep them connected with the world of work and aids in preventing that dual waste of their lives and out money.

This is absolutely nothing at all to do with being right wing, conservative, neoliberal or even liberal. It's an entirely social democratic analysis of the problem and an entirely social democratic solution.

It may also be a good one, might also be a bad one but that's an entirely different matter. The blame or the plaudits, whichever way around it should be, should indeed go to those who proposed it. Similarly, if it's a good idea than praise its introduction whoever does it and if a bad one condemn it.

Peronally I'm convinced by the argument and the evidence and in the absence of my preferred solution (a return of capitalism red in tooth and claw that would raise the growth level and thus reduce unemployment) support the idea that work for welfare is a good idea. Even if it did come from my old economics professor....