|Vision for change - IDS at the Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow in 2002. |
Foto Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
However, as it became clear that increasing welfare payments contributed to a fundamental change in people's attitudes towards work, reformers changed tack. They began to argue that, whilst little could be done to change people's willingness to work, the consequences of worklessness could, and should be, mitigated through ever higher welfare payments. In particular, it was argued, children of parents who were out of work required additional resources. The main avenue to eradicate child poverty was increasingly perceived to be higher out of work welfare payments to parents, reinforcing a vicious circle in which parents were incentivised to demonstrate to welfare officers how poor they were to gain access to additional resources. A tragic spiral of low levels of personal responsibility, de-legitimising work as a source of income and welfare as a legitimate replacement for income through employment ensued that eventually led to some British families in receipt of hundreds of thousands of pounds every year. The logic was undeniable. Once need was identified, adequate welfare had to be provided.
IDS was not the first person to challenge this logic, but, looking back, it is hard to imagine today how difficult it once was to articulate a different strategy. The impetus for change however did not come from this country, or from conservative politicians, but from social reformers on the left in the US. They recognised the link between out of work payments, behaviour and increasing welfare needs. In a way, they argued, the missing component in eradicating poverty was personal responsibility. What was needed as a hand up, not a handout, echoing the slogans of radical social reformers in the 19th century.
When coming to office in 1992, President Bill Clinton embarked on fundamental welfare reform, based on the principle of incentivising work. Other countries followed suit, interestingly mainly socialist and social democratic governments. In Britain, significant welfare reform was judged a shot too far within the Blair and Brown Cabinets, although progressive reform minded Labour politicians like James Purnell articulated the need for change.
The resignation of IDS on Friday ended one of the most effective welfare reforms this country has seen since the introduction of the welfare state under Clement Attlee. IDS changed for the better the references for the debate in this country. We now speak of the need to support people to get into work, assess their fitness to work, instead of patting them on the back and sending them home with a welfare cheque. This has undoubtedly created frictions and difficulties. Changes to welfare entitlements have been fiercely resisted by those habituated into a life on the dole and the proponents of the status quo.
However the main parameters of the national debate are now around how to sufficiently incentivise employment. And it is IDS's contribution to have brought about this shift.