This article was first published at NEF
If you lost your job tomorrow, fell ill, or needed to take time off work to care for a sick or elderly relative, the social security system would be there to help you. It exists to deal with the problem of insecurity and supports us in life transitions – whether it’s having children or finding a new job. It puts into action the original 14th century meaning of welfare – helping us ‘journey well’ through life.
But the present social security system is under attack. Political parties see benefits as a drain, rather than an investment in the wellbeing of society and the sustainability of the economy. Welfare reforms focus on reducing the support available and encourage an individual rather than collective response to the challenge of low pay and income insecurity. Instead, we want to shape a system which pools risk and shares resources in order to provide security for everyone when they need it.
As part of our work developing a new social settlement, we worked with experts to develop ideas for improving social security – to make it more preventative, collective and dynamic.
Our new working paper proposes an agenda for change, including these five steps:
Understand personal responsibility, but in the context of interdependence. Many of the problems with the present system – that it is divisive, punitive and stigmatising – originate from views about personal responsibility. People are individually blamed for being unemployed, regardless of the economic context. We build on a different definition, developed by Skills Network through peer research into mothers’ experiences of Jobcentre Plus. As they point out, “In the context of people being interdependent, personal responsibility is asking for support when it’s needed and giving it when you can.”
Recognise the importance of prevention. All benefits are potentially preventative in nature. They can help people avoid a decline in mental and physical health due to unemployment, or ending up in debt due to the onset of an illness or impairment. Prevention creates much less waste, financially and in terms of human cost, than waiting to act until things go wrong. Recognising the preventative value of benefits involves a shift in mind-set – from seeing benefits as a drain, to seeing them as a form of investment and tracking their impact over the long-term.
Ensure quality as well as quantity of jobs. People need continued support that helps them access employment, but we must also ensure the right sorts of employment are actually available. This points to the need not only for a Jobs Guarantee but for a ‘Good Jobs’ Guarantee, including provision for shorter working hours and strengthening the obligation on employers to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled staff.
Create more supportive Jobcentres. At present, Jobcentres measure progress simply through the number of applications a person completes after signing on. But what if we turned them into hubs of collaborative activity, providing support in a number of different ways? Through co-production people would have much more say over what support they need to find a suitable job. A timebanking model could also help to properly value different activities that help prepare for and find employment. People would then be able to choose a more tailored package of support, with workshops at Jobcentres, meeting with local employers and providing support for others – for example, childminding for a peer who was attending a job interview or teaching someone else a skill – also valued.
Make decision-making more democratic. Few people currently have a say in social security policy. Campaigners, charities and other various fringe groups strive to have influence, but their voices are rarely heard. Instead, politicians base policy on media-influenced polling which is in turn shaped by elite, distant figures. There is little genuine dialogue – discussions, for example, around: the effect of cost of living increases on benefit rates; the extent of unpaid labour contributed by people receiving benefits (carers, parents, volunteers) which would otherwise be a struggle to pay for; and the deeper drivers of welfare spending (particularly rising private rents and unequal pay). Democratic bodies should be developed to which government is formally accountable, creating more transparent, evidence-based discussions, involving people with first-hand experience of the system.
An effective social security system creates a structure for shared sympathy and responsibility. Through collective action against insecurity and redistribution of wealth it helps to build solidarity. It has the potential to facilitate more equal shares in what society has to offer: with equal opportunities to play a meaningful role, contribute what you can, receive mutual support, and fulfil personal potential. These are the true benefits to be unlocked.