This raises several questions. Isn’t this an abuse of language? I had thought that if you work, the money you get in return is wages. And if you have to work 40 hours a week to get Job Seekers Allowance of £60.50, you’re paid £1.50 an hour. How is this consistent with the principle of a minimum wage?
But there’s a deeper question. Purnell could have sold a similar policy differently. He could have spoken thus:
So, why did Purnell not say this?
We know that the unemployed are generally significantly unhappier (pdf) than those in work. We intend to put an end to this, by offering every person who has been out of work for two years the opportunity to do meaningful work improving their local communities. This will not just lift them out of poverty, as the minimum wage and tax credits offer a higher income than out-of-work benefits. It will raise their self-esteem, end the isolation and loneliness that contributes so much to the misery of being jobless and - perhaps - act as a gateway to better jobs.
Such work is so much better than the dole that the long-term unemployed, being the best judges of their own interests, will freely choose it. There‘s no need therefore for compulsion.
It can’t be because this policy is more expensive than his actual one which, as I said, will cost the taxpayer money.
It could be that he thinks the long-term unemployed are actually working in the black economy, and wants to compel them into the “legitimate” economy.
Or perhaps he doesn’t trust the unemployed to perceive their own interests, and so feels the need to compel them.
Or maybe he's more concerned to hand over taxpayers' cash to companies than to the poor.
But there’s a nastier possibility. As Justin says, this is about stigmatizing the unemployed, by lumping them in with criminals doing community service.
In this respect, for all the New Labour drivel about “modernization” what’s going on here is something centuries old - treating poverty as moral failure. Here’s C.B.Macpherson describing 17th century attitudes to poverty relief:
Nothing much has changed in the last 350 years.
The Puritan doctrine of the poor, treating poverty as a mark of moral shortcoming, added moral obloquy to the political disregard in which the poor had always been held. The poor might deserve to be helped, but it must be done from a superior moral footing. Objects of solicitude or pity or scorn, and sometimes of fear, the poor were not full members of a moral community. (The political theory of possessive individualism, p226-7)