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From ‘safety net’ to ‘trampoline’: the reform of the welfare state

By Julie MacLeavy


In recent years, governments of both the right and left have been involved in debates over the best way to deliver public services. Whereas during the post-war period it was widely accepted that state provisioning of infrastructure, health, education and social services was the best way to ensure the well being of citizens, in the latter decades of the twentieth century the market was claimed to be a better way of delivering public goods and services because it was associated with competition, economic efficiency and consumer choice. Commitment to the market entailed a qualitative shift in welfare provision, whereby welfare was based less on a model in which the state counters the market and more on a model where the state serves the market.

In many western post-industrial nations this transition was made manifest through a shift from ‘flat rate’ to ‘graduated’ benefits and from universalism to greater means testing. ‘Activation’ policies also formed part of this approach, placing work requirements on welfare recipients as a condition of their benefit payments. In the Anglophone model, governments increasingly promoted individual responsibility through work incentives, welfare disincentives, and the privatisation of service provision. The welfare state was no longer viewed as a ‘safety net’ for people with low or no incomes, but was restructured to support training and the use of compulsions in relation to welfare-to-work programmes. In this sense, the welfare state came to function somewhat like a ‘trampoline’, not only catching people, but bouncing them from benefits back into the paid work.

In this restructuring process, a free-market ideology was marshalled alongside a (moral) discourse of welfare that warned of the dangers of welfare ‘dependency’. This built on conservative discourse that presents welfare recipients as ‘naturally’ deficient in the characteristics that make responsible citizens and good workers, and frames welfare as a system in need of reform, not least for its propensity to harbour joblessness and inactivity in the lowest socio-economic sectors of society. As I discuss in this paper, such anti-welfare rhetoric was frequently directed at the young/single/minority-ethnic/inner-city mother, unable to support herself and her children through ‘a lack of gainful employment’ – a claim which was expanded and used in some instances to depict the welfare system itself as an enlarged maternal system, spawning offspring that were not only a drain on the public purse, but who were also seen to constitute a threat to society through their links with rising crime, juvenile delinquency and myriad other social problems.

In the UK, welfare reform was achieved through the reduction of cash benefits to the unemployed and the ‘underemployed’ (who do not quality for unemployment insurance but instead are eligible to receive means-tested welfare payments), as well as the introduction of new labour market measures that were subordinate to market forces (such as increased private sector involvement in the delivery of state services). Adopting a mantra of ‘positive welfare’, the Labour government in power from 1997 to 2010 offered citizens “a hand up not a handout”. While this change was significant, this trajectory of development ought not to overshadow the extent to which the implementation of Labour’s ‘workfare’ regime (as it became known in academic circles) was subtended by a series of more traditional welfare supports. Not only did the Labour government continue to underwrite the peripheral labour market through financial assistance to low wage workers (through, for example, Income Support payments to be made to those on low or no wages and Working Tax Credit in place of Family Credit, a previous welfare benefit), it also introduced a series of what might be generously seen as quasi-pastoral initiatives for unemployed individuals (further education and training to raise employability, welfare-to-work schemes to provide opportunities for work placements and volunteering, help with childcare for pre-school age children). In this respect, I would argue, the conceptualisation of workfare as a trampoline that rebounds people back into the labour market ought to include a surrounding net enclosure that acts to prevent injuries from falls.

It is this net enclosure that is under threat from the proposed austerity measures of the Coalition government, formed following the May 2010 general election in the UK. Despite the current context of rising unemployment and deep recession being very different the buoyant economic climate of late 1990s when the project was launched, welfare reform has gathered apace. Augmenting the ongoing promotion of paid work over unpaid reproductive and caring roles, the Coalition government has proposed a series of austerity measures that it is claimed will achieve cost reduction in the social security system. In conjunction with the introduction of an integrated tax and benefit systems (termed the Universal Credit) there will be a reduction in the threshold and amount of financial assistance from the state. This will have the effect of making people more reliant on a geographically and socially unequal labour market in a period of economic volatility. In particular, and as I discuss in the paper, the coalition government’s project poses a risk to the financial security and autonomy of women living in poverty and in receipt of benefits/tax credits because it fails to take account of the link between the issues of employment, care and gender inequality.

Julie MacLeavy is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Bristol, UK. She is a political economic geographer with research interests in labour market regulation, welfare provision and urban renewal. Julie’s work has been published in a number of scholarly journals, including the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society. You can read Julie MacLeavy’s paper in full and for free here. You may also be interested in this OUPblog post by Vassilis Monastiriotis.

Recent Comments

  1. [...] Is the welfare state a ‘bad mother’? Conservative anti-welfare rhetoric depicted the welfare system as "an enlarged maternal system, spawning offspring that were not only a drain on the public purse, but who were also seen to constitute a threat to society through their links with rising crime, juvenile delinquency and myriad other social problems" writes British researcher Julie MacLeavy. [...]

  2. [...] Journal of Regions, Economy, and Society, in full and for free here. You may also be interested in this OUPblog post by Julie [...]

  3. [...] of Regions, Economy and Society in full and for free here. OUPblog also has related posts by Julie MacLeavy and Vassilis Monastiriotis. [...]

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