I fear there's an element of dog-whistle politics in George Osborne's "help to work" plan - the whistle being that he's appealing to those who wish to blame the unemployed for their plight under the guise of helping them. I say so for the following reasons:
1. This is not really about being "fair to those who pay for welfare" simply because the net exchequer cost of long-term unemployment is low. There are now 462,000 who have been out of work for over two years. With JSA at £71.70 per week, this costs £1.7bn per year - a little over 0.1% of GDP, which is well below the forecast error in government borrowing*. If Mr Osborne is serious about helping the jobless find work and reskilling them, this'll cost money. An "intensive regime of support" for addicts and illiterates won't come cheap. As I've said before, scrounging is not a major macroeconomic issue.
2. Unemployment is a massive source of unhappiness. ONS data show that whereas only 3.7% of those in work report very low life satisfaction (0-4 on a 0-10 scale), 14.1% of the unemployed do. Worse still, the unemployed do not adapt to their situation. This suggests that, if Mr Osborne's offer of help is sincere, there needn't be any element of compulsion in it because - for the most part - the long-term unemployed do want to work.
3.There's strong evidence that many (not all) workfare programmes fail (pdf) to get people into lasting employment. This warns us that, in the wrong hands, such schemes can be more of a way of harassing and stigmatizing the unemployed than actually helping them.
4. There's a big cyclical element in long-term unemployment. It rises in recessions and falls in booms. At it's low-point, there were fewer than 150,000 who'd been out of work for two years or more. The present rate is three times this. This suggests that long-term unemployment is more about macroeconomic conditions than workshyness and folk wanting something for nothing.
Now, I don't want to be too hard on Osborne here; his speech wasn't as harsh on the unemployed as I'd feared it might be from this morning's reports. And given the huge welfare cost of joblessness, any genuine help for them is to be welcomed. I just wish politicians (of all parties) wouldn't try to mix this with the base motive of encouraging people to blame the victim.
* Yes, the unemployed are entitled to other benefits, but they're entitled to some of these if they get low-paid work.