Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Feeling Motivated Yet? Long-Term Unemployed People's Perspectives on the Implementation of Workfare in Australia

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Feeling Motivated Yet? Long-Term Unemployed People's Perspectives on the Implementation of Workfare in Australia

Article excerpt


A common assumption of workfare programs is that many of the long term unemployed exhibit deficits in motivation to engage proactively in the search for paid work (Wanberg, Kanfer and Rotundo, 1999; Hawksworth, 1992). Such assumptions are based on the proposition that being on unemployment benefits undermines the development of attitudes and behaviour conducive to active labour market participation (Kalil, Schweingruber and Seefeldt, 2001; Greenwell, Leibowitz and Klerman, 1998). Often, these assumptions directly reflect the position taken by conservative social policy writers such as Lawrence Mead (1986) and Charles Murray (1994). From Mead (1986: 133), for example, we read such statements as:

   Whatever outward causes one cites, a mystery in the heart of no
   work [neologism in the original] remains--the passivity of the
   seriously poor in seizing the opportunities that apparently exist
   for them ... To explain no work, I see no avoiding some appeal
   to psychology or culture. Mostly, seriously poor adults appear to
   avoid work, not because of their economic situation, but because
   of what they believe (p. 12).

   In the absence of prohibitive barriers to employment, the
   question of the personality of the poor emerges as the key to
   understanding and overcoming poverty. Psychology is the last
   frontier in the search for the causes of low work effort ... Why
   do the poor not seize [the opportunities] as assiduously as the
   culture assumes they will? (p. 133)

In these explanations Mead positions the unemployed as a group of people at risk of being cast adrift from mainstream values and culture--a type of risk generated by their own diminished psychological and moral state. Mead's explanation of unemployment has been referred to as a 'pathological' theory of unemployment because it asserts that poverty is rooted in the character or behavioural problems of the poor (Hawkesworth, 1992).

Mead explicitly suggests that at the heart of the (apparent) lack of motivation are deficits in the self-efficacy of the unemployed. In his words: "the core of the culture of poverty seems to be inability to control one's life--what psychologists call inefficacy" (Mead, 1986, p. 144). Mead's solution is to subject the unemployed to policies and programs that combine 'help and hassle' to transform the unemployed subject into an active citizen. In countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United States these principles have been translated by policy makers to mean some form of financial sanction for non-compliance (hassle) and various forms of training and services (help). This approach is thought to promote work habits and improve self-esteem and lead to an employment outcome. In summary, it is designed to promote 'job readiness' in the unemployed (Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, 2000).

Despite their obvious policy popularity the assumptions upon which workfare programs are based remain largely untested. While these programs have been extensively applied in a range of western countries there has been little independent analysis of the effects of these programs on self-efficacy or employment (Borland and Tseng, 2005). While some critical attention has been given to the counter-productive effects of sanctions on job search behaviour (Ziguras et al, 2003), much less attention has been given to the effects that employment services have on individuals and their employment outcomes. Given the intractability of long-term unemployment and the significant amount of human and financial resources being devoted to workfare type programs in many western countries, these programs and the policy logic that sits behind them deserve critical attention.

Here we evaluate workfare programs on their own terms; that is, whether they improve the self-efficacy in the unemployed. …

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