Voluntary unemployment and left-dominated social policy academia

Voluntary unemployment and left-dominated social policy academia

Andrew Dunn (University of Lincoln)

The Coalition government has increased the number of conditions attached to receiving unemployment benefit (Jobseeker’s Allowance/JSA, soon to be Universal Credit), and those who do not comply face the most severe financial penalties in UK welfare state history.  This trend towards greater conditionality and sanctioning, which began in the 1980s, is underpinned by a view among policymakers that voluntary unemployment is widespread.  Indeed, both Work and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan Smith and John Hutton (one of Duncan Smith’s Labour predecessors at the DWP) have expressed this view, and it is widely shared by voters.

Yet academic researchers, who are mainly in social policy, often insist that the politicians and public have got it wrong, and that the tougher policies are unnecessary.  These academics for example, Sharon Wright point to a considerable body of evidence which demonstrates that unemployed benefit claimants possess the same work values as everyone else and that the overwhelming majority both want employment and actively search for it.

In this article I argue that left-dominated social policy academia has failed to answer some important questions.  I criticise social policy writing about unemployed benefit claimants and present evidence from my four empirical research projects, which all delivered findings consistent with the view that many unemployed people prefer living on benefits to undertaking jobs that would increase their income, but which they consider unattractive.

Very few social policy academics are Conservatives.  What Alan Deacon has called the ‘Quasi-Titmuss school’, with its exclusively structural explanations of social problems including poverty and unemployment, and its strong links to ‘poverty lobby’ organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group, has long dominated UK social policy.(1)   In this climate, research findings which might appear surprising to outside observers (for example, the unemployed having more positive attitudes towards employment than the employed) are accepted uncritically, while researchers have failed to address the sort of questions a Conservative might ask (for example, ‘why didn’t those long-term unemployed people apply for more low status jobs?’), and authors who focus any attention on the behaviour of individuals when explaining poverty and unemployment have been misrepresented, treated dismissively and castigated for ‘blaming the victim’.

Mainstream UK social policy authors have not only overlooked the fact that conservative authors, including former Thatcher aide David Marsland and the influential US commentator Lawrence Mead, have only ever claimed that unemployed people choose to avoid the least attractive category of jobs (i.e. badly paid, dead-end, boring jobs) in favour of benefits, but also that these conservatives tend to consider benefit claimants’ testimonies a poor guide to their actual behaviour (they instead tend to base their conclusions on the views of people in the welfare-to-work industry and on policies’ employment effects).

With these considerations in mind, my four research projects all looked at ‘choosiness’ (by which I mean being selective in the jobs one is willing to do to avoid living on benefits), and one project consisted of interviews with people in welfare-to-work organisations contracted by the DWP to help JSA claimants into employment.  Two of my interview projects (one in 2001/2 with 20 employees and 30 unemployed JSA claimants, the other in 2011 with 30 employees and 40 unemployed JSA claimants) found that all unemployed JSA claimant respondents had been employed at some point, and that all were willing to undertake some jobs at present.

However, my interviews’ focus on respondents’ attitudes towards (and actual choices between) the less attractive jobs and claiming JSA exposed not only widespread reluctance to undertake ‘bad’ jobs, but also a dramatic difference between determined job searchers or employees who saw employment as an imperative, and others who strongly favoured living on benefits over undertaking jobs they considered uninteresting or unpleasant.  Until now, social policy authors have been able to say that this oft-supposed dramatic difference is a right-wing / tabloid ‘myth’ that would be dispelled easily if only their scientific evidence was afforded the attention it deserves.

All of the 40 employees of welfare-to-work organisations I interviewed in 2011 said that many of their long-term (i.e. over 6 months) JSA claimant clients remained unemployed because they were too ‘choosy’ in the jobs they were willing to do; most of the 40 said they believed that a majority of these clients would enter employment within two months if they applied for a range of relatively unattractive jobs; some said they were shocked by their clients’ apparent preference for benefits over unattractive jobs which, they said, had led them to abandon the more favourable attitudes towards the long-term unemployed they held prior to entering the industry.

The only other UK study of welfare-to-work industry employees to focus specifically upon their clients’ employment attitudes is Shildrick et al. (2012), (2) an archetypal ‘quasi-Titmuss school’ book which also includes interviews with unemployed and employed people about their own employment attitudes.  Shildrick et al. drew their firm conclusion that people ‘love’ being employed (p.8, 136) and ‘loathe’ claiming benefits (p.194) based on what unemployed and employed people told them; they completely dismissed their 13 welfare-to-work industry respondents’ comments (which were very similar to what my 40 said) as biased!

Shildrick et al.’s favouring of one form of interview research over the other is remarkable, as both clearly have strengths and limitations.  After all, the professionals have vast experience of their clients’ job search activity (my 40 had spent a combined estimated total of 147,000 hours in the presence of their long-term unemployed clients), while some unemployed people might not want to risk losing their income by telling a stranger they do not want a job, even if they believe their chances of being reported to the benefit authorities are tiny.  Yet because conclusions like Shildrick et al.’s are pleasing to left-wing people’s ears they receive virtually no critical scrutiny from other social policy academics.  Indeed, glowing reviews of Shildrick et al.’s book – for example, that of Hartley Dean, have overlooked its inclusion of evidence of widespread voluntary unemployment.

My fourth project with Clare Saunders and Maria T. Grasso analysed attitude survey data.  Previous quantitative studies have used questions which, I believe, are inappropriate for studying my topic because they do not offer respondents a choice between being employed and being unemployed.  Studies have tended to use the ‘lottery question’ (‘would you work if you had no financial need to?’) or Protestant Work Ethic scales (featuring agree/disagree statements such as ‘our society would have fewer problems if people had less leisure time’), and they have concluded that unemployed people’s commitment to employment is at least as strong as employed people’s.  We used the agree/disagree statement ‘having almost any job is better than being unemployed’ from the British Cohort Study (BCS) and National Child Development Study (NCDS), which each have large samples of about 10,000.  Being ‘unemployed and seeking work’ associated strongly with ‘disagreeing’ with the statement in all four surveys we analysed (the most recent waves of the BCS [1996 and 2000] and NCDS [2000 and 2008]), even when relevant variables were controlled for

Thus, all of my studies’ findings are consistent with the view that large numbers of unemployed people remain on benefits because they are too choosy in the jobs they are willing to undertake.  While the ‘unemployment trap’ (being unable to increase one’s net income by entering employment) is well established empirically, people being reluctant to do jobs that would increase their net income, but which they consider unattractive, has not emerged to anything like the same extent before.

While it is perhaps inevitable that academics’ political standpoints (whether left or right) influence their research and writing, UK social policy literature on unemployment is nevertheless striking in this regard, as the vast majority of authors lean in one direction – to the left.  Yet this is rarely acknowledged when they present ‘scientific evidence’ to challenge so-called ‘myths’ perpetuated by mainstream politicians and tabloid newspapers.  As Frank Field MP, who is both a mainstream politician and a social policy author, once put it, left-wing social policy authors sometimes imply that benefit claimants are ‘immune from the faults of laziness or dishonesty’. (3)

When I first published findings from my 40 welfare-to-work industry interviews, in an article that included the kind of criticisms of social policy writing I have made here, the Journal of Social Policy invited mainstream social policy authors Sharon Wright and Greg Marston to write responses.  While the pair made some interesting and intelligent points, they did not tell me anything substantial that I did not already know, and they neither conceded ground to me nor said anything to persuade me to change my mind.  My hope is that my book’s  arguments and findings, which I have summarised here, will provoke some more fruitful debate.


(1) Deacon, A. (2002) Perspectives on Welfare, Buckingham: Open University Press.
(2) Shildrick, T, MacDonald, R, Webster, C and Garthwaite, K. (2012) Poverty and Insecurity: life in ‘low pay, no pay’ Britain, Bristol: Policy Press.
(3) Field, F. (1997) ‘Re-inventing welfare: a response to Lawrence Mead’, in Deacon, A (ed.), From Welfare to Work: lessons from America, London: IEA, p.61.


Andrew Dunn is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Lincoln.  He is the author of Rethinking Unemployment and the Work Ethic.

2 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    February 17, 2015

    An interesting and provocative piece, I agree that ‘left-dominated’ social policy needs to be critical of its research and its assumptions. However I think that there is a double standard in the position that the author takes on the ‘exclusively structural explanations’ of left wing social policy analysts, namely, that like the neo-liberal narrative, the alternative offered here is exclusively agential.

    So while the argument is made that people claiming social security prefer to do this than take unattractive jobs, no where (at least in this blog post) is there a recognition of the structural trend within the UK labour market to produce more and more de-skilled, rote, low-paid, insecure and precarious jobs.

    Moreover the question of motivation is (again, at least in this post) undertheorised, but suggests an assumption of rational actor theory. So if the least unattractive jobs pay a small amount more than social security then rational actors would take them. This of course fails to recognise the wider influences on people’s choices, not least whether the work is viewed as a fair wage for the effort.

    But ultimately, when the author introduces the concept of ‘choosiness’ here we see the well rehearsed ‘welfare dependency’ narrative. Choosiness is far too loaded and comes across as a highly moralising view. Much like ‘shirkers’. I welcome the author in provoking debate and recognition within social policy of agential arguments in relation to structural explanations and broader concern with the quality of work, but the many assumptions made here suggest a failure to recognise the value of critical social policy, or worse, an apology for the exploitation of unemployed people.


    • Avatar
      March 15, 2015

      Thanks for the comments, which I found interesting and useful. As my article called for more debate, it seems appropriate that I should reply here, and I welcome the opportunity. I don’t agree that there is a ‘double standard’ in that I complain of exclusively structural explanations of unemployment and then present my own one-sided view, but I accept that I have risked that kind of criticism in this article by focusing on how my arguments and conclusions differ from those of other social policy authors. I never challenge the view that unemployment is largely a structural problem; I merely contend that 1. the extent to which people’s spells of unemployment are brought about by their own lack of commitment to the less attractive jobs, and 2. the extent to which the level of this commitment varies between individuals, have both been downplayed significantly in social policy academic literature, and that this downplaying is a consequence of the fact that these academics tend to be left-of-centre politically. Of course, if most social policy academics were conservatives, the realities that my work draws attention to would inevitably be overstated in the literature. You are correct to say that there is no recognition in my article ‘of the structural trend within the UK labour market to produce more…low-paid, insecure and precarious jobs’. I certainly do not deny that such labour market changes are taking place, but none of my arguments or findings are invalidated by such revelations. Regarding the ‘assumption of rational actor theory’ – I am sorry if my article implied this; in fact, my book discusses empirical studies of employment commitment (such as Jordan et al.’s ‘Trapped in Poverty?’ and McLaughlin et al.’s ‘Work and Welfare Benefits’) which, along with my own research, show that relatively small changes to economic stimuli are unlikely to deliver impressive employment effects. I agree with your criticism that the term ‘choosiness’ might be considered less than perfectly neutral-sounding, though I don’t agree that it is like ‘shirkers’ in that respect, and I think that ‘choosiness’ is as appropriate as any other word. I never intend to be moralising when I say people are ‘choosy’ in job search, and in my book I say that I leave it to readers to decide what level of ‘choosiness’ they consider morally acceptable. I also highlight the point that whether or not one believes that a particular level of ‘choosiness’ in job search is acceptable tends to reflect one’s own ideological position. This is an important part of my argument about left-dominated social policy academia, as social policy authors lean towards seeing ‘choosiness’ as acceptable and tend to focus their critical attention purely on unequal structures. I disagree that my ‘choosiness’ point is part of a ‘welfare dependency’ narrative; my book shows that the two concepts are miles apart, and both my qualitative and quantitative work has found that graduates are among the most likely to prefer unemployment to low status jobs – a finding that does not sit comfortably with the ‘welfare dependency/dependency culture’ thesis, as the latter is preoccupied with those at the bottom of the class structure.