This article was originally written for politco.ie in February of 2012.
Last Thursday Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton launched Pathways to Work, “a radical new plan to get unemployed people back to work.” Those at ‘high risk’ of remaining unemployed over the long-term will receive priority treatment and intensive support as part of new measures outlined in the plan.
Those receiving payments from the Department of Social Protection will be required to actively seek work as part of this new proposal, or risk having their benefits cut or being “dropped off the register completely”, according to Burton.
The National Employment and Entitlement Service (NEES) will offer personalised support to jobseekers, in order to “ensure active case management with scarce resources targeted at people most in need of assistance.”
Getting tough with the unemployed
But why now – with unemployment at 14.5% and job vacancies at a low – is such a thing being proposed? Bríd O’Brien, Head of Policy and Media for the Irish National Organisation for the Unemployed (INOU) says she supports the proposals to ensure jobseekers receive personal assistance, but dislikes the “getting tough” approach the Government has taken. “This is something that a lot of people have been calling for, for a long time, including ourselves. [This being] a system that can interact with people and engage with them, and offer them support and advice, rather than a system that gets tough with people, because ultimately that’s not going to work.”
The scheme has been heavily criticised by opposition TDs. Sinn Féin has branded the scheme the ‘Pathways to Poverty’ programme, and the party’s social protection spokesman Aengus Ó Snodaigh has accused the Government of “punishing the unemployed”. Socialist Party/ULA TD Joe Higgins has referred to the proposal as a “cynical Tory ploy of blaming the victims of the crisis”.
Media reaction and the ‘lazy feckers’
Sinead Pentony, Head of Policy at TASC, says that incentivising job-seeking by threatening to cut welfare will be ineffective, due to the fundamental lack of employment opportunities in the country, with 26 unemployed people for every job vacancy. “At the end of the day, people can be trained up to the oxters, but if the jobs aren’t there the jobs aren’t there. The undertone in a lot of the media coverage is, it’s getting the lazy feckers back to work, get them off the dole, it’s a lifestyle choice.”
O’Brien, too, is critical of the media’s attitude to the unemployed, saying, “There’s a key element in the media of people saying, ‘Oh let’s hit them over the head and make them go off and do this and blah, blah, blah.’ We [at the INOU] would argue this is a complete waste of money, it is demoralising for people, and it’s the wrong way around to be doing things. What we need to do is to improve how they engage with people, and improve the service they provide people, and to make sure people get their payment or entitlement ASAP.”
Supply and demand
Pentony does not believe the plans will have a profound effect on job creation. “[The Government] are not dealing with the elephant in the room, which is the need for investment, for the purpose of job creation. There’s a whole range of projects that are labour intensive that could be supported by the Government to try and create demand for labour. From an economic perspective, there’s too much focus on the supply.”
Bríd O’Brien echoes this view, saying “They also need to bear in mind that they need to service people that currently have a good skill-set and experience, and really the problem is the lack of jobs. It’s very important that the system has something to offer them.”
The Government has been criticised for not taking a more proactive role in job-creation through state investment and stimulus. “In a recession, because there’s lack of confidence and stability, the private sector won’t invest in this type of climate, with all these issues with credit and finance. When private investment is not there, the state has to step in, in terms of job-creation. Our economy has been starved for investment for the last four years, and that’s what we’re seeing. We’re flatlining at the moment in terms of unemployment,” says Pentony.
“If you took all of the National Pension Reserve (NPRS) money and looked at utilising the State-companies [for] balance-sheet borrowing. You know, there’s different ways of securing the financial investment we need, what’s lacking is the political will. [The Government] are clearly committed to a particular path, and I’m wondering how bad things are going to have to get, that people are going to start realising that. We cannot succeed on the path we are building.”
It’s a view shared by Socialist/ULA TD Joe Higgins, who wrote last month that “There is an obvious way to drastically cut unemployment, that is by creating real jobs as opposed to harassing the unemployed into makeshift programmes that simply make the figures look better. The Fine Gael/Labour Coalition has refused to contemplate the radical measures that could be taken. They opt instead to capitulate to the diktats of the troika that billions of our people’s resources be funnelled into the vaults of the gambling bondholders of the former Anglo Irish Bank.”