Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Welfare and the Work Ethic', Engineers Australia, December 2000, p. 55.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

The community expression of the work ethic in modern society is loudest and clearest in attitudes towards the unemployed. The social benefits of treating unemployed people humanely and generously have been obscured by propaganda aimed at stigmatising the unemployed as bludgers.

Work for the dole schemes are becoming more prevalent in the English speaking world. Forcing welfare recipients into government created make-work schemes is supposed to give them the right 'work attitude'. Whilst forcing welfare recipients to work for welfare payments has always been popular in theory amongst conservatives, it has not been adopted much in the past because it tends to cost more money in supervision and administration than it saves.

Nor is work-for-benefit designed to increase employment opportunities. Rather it is in part deterrent to those who would choose an 'easy' life on welfare, and in part designed to teach and promote a work ethic and work habits. Welfare recipients who are made to work for their benefit have to get up early, arrive at work on time, work with and for others, and acquire work skills.

It is believed that welfare recipients who don't work, not only lose the work ethic themselves but bring up children without a work ethic because their children lack a positive role model. One US advocate openly states: "The point is to enforce the work ethic. This is a long-term cultural offensive, not a budget-control program or an expression of compassion."

Terms such as 'mutual obligation' have come into fashion. The idea of mutual obligation or 'reciprocal obligation' replaces the concept of welfare being a right or an entitlement with the concept that such benefits should be earned. Associated terms are 'personal responsibility' or 'reciprocal responsibility'. These terms imply that welfare recipients haven't been fulfilling their moral duties in the past and have been irresponsible. The assumption is that people on welfare do not want to work and have to be made to work so they can fulfil their responsibilities.

The new work for the dole schemes, are premised on the idea that unemployment has been caused or at least exacerbated by the welfare system rather than factors such as the massive corporate and government downsizing that occurred during the 1980s and 90s. The government would rather high levels of unemployment were blamed on the unemployed themselves than government policies. Corporations, too, would prefer to draw attention away from their role in creating unemployment.

The unemployed also tend to be blamed for their own plight by large sections of the community. However a 1997 Australian government report found that, despite public and employer perceptions, young unemployed people (those first targeted by the work for the dole schemes) want very much to have proper jobs.

One might have thought that it was in the working person's interests, when there aren't enough jobs for everyone, to know that those who are on unemployment benefits have a reasonable income and are not hassled. It should be reassuring to those with jobs to know that it would not be so terrible if they too were unfortunate enough to become unemployed; and also to know that there isn’t an army of people desperate to get their jobs by offering to work for less pay. However, in this case logic does not prevail.

Psychological studies suggest that those who subscribe most strongly to a work ethic have the harshest, most unforgiving attitudes to the poor and unemployed. Rather than blaming social institutions or government failures they blame individuals for their own fate. They see those on social security as idle and dishonest. In particular, welfare recipients are "pictured as virtually irredeemable, lazy, dependent, living off the hard-earned money of others."

Attributing individual causes to unemployment, such as lack of effort and education, serves several purposes. Firstly it causes people to work harder for fear of failing themselves since failure is not only unpleasant but carries with it the shame of not having enough character and diligence to succeed. Secondly it excuses unemployment and counters arguments for institutional change. Labelling welfare recipients as bludgers, cheats and delinquents also ensures that the unemployed feel ashamed rather than indignant.

Sharon Beder's new book Selling the Work Ethic: from puritan pulpit to corporate PR was published in November by Scribe Publishing, Melbourne.