Monday, 8 November 2010

Empathy as an economic tool

The long-term unemployed are likely to be pushed into 4 weeks full time voluntary work or lose their entire income for 3 months. The Arch Bishop of Canterbury believes, "It can make people who start feeling vulnerable feel more vulnerable.”

Like so much of our public discourse the arguments are presented out of context and we’re encouraged to polarise, so it may be worth some analysis of this situation.

Many unemployed people already volunteer. This is recognised by the Department for Work and Pensions who limit the number of hours that an unemployed person can volunteer to 16 per week so that it doesn’t get in the way of job seeking. How this squares with 35 hours of full time voluntary work isn't addressed by the new proposal.

Those of us who are angry with people who live on benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’ may be interested in the following and the comments afterwards.

The DWP’s own research offers some insight into unemployed people’s perception of voluntary work, one of the most important things to note is that people who are unemployed are also very bored.

For some people this boredom is a spur to action, for others it is the beginning of a decent into depression, mental illness and crime. Being unemployed means that you can’t afford to do anything much. Things that employed people on a decent wage take for granted – taking public transport to a free gallery or museum or a beautiful park – become nearly impossible for the unemployed. Normal social life becomes restricted – you can’t buy a round in the pub, or go on shopping trips or other recreational events with friends. Holidays are out of the question. Children’s normal growth becomes a crisis – a £20 pair of shoes is a quarter of a week’s income for a single parent with one child. (Who are these families with 10 children rolling around in cash in a million pound house? No actual figures are available, which suggests they’re a useful aberration for the right wing media and people who need to whip up hatred.)

Young unemployed men in particular seem to be vulnerable to depression which may have something to do with their parallel poor achievement at school. Prisons are heaving with people who simply cannot read. Please read this report:

Literacy problems in the prison population are often compounded by a wide range of emotional, learning, and/or attention deficits, including:

Child abuse and neglect, linguistic impoverishment in the childhood home, low verbal ability, uncorrected visual and hearing impairments in childhood, unskilled teaching in the junior school and the mistaken conjecture about literacy practice, closed head injury and substance misuse, low non-verbal ability, childhood hyperactivity-impulsivity and inattention, impairments in empathy and social cognition, current anxiety and depression, and – often as a default and catch-all explanation – developmental dyslexia (Rice and Brooks 2004:4).

Those unemployed people who are not already doing some kind of formal or informal voluntary work are, I propose, unlikely to be able move instantly from a long term existence of extreme boredom to a 35 hour week. When they don’t they will lose all their income. Consider what that really means. I know we’re supposed to not think for ourselves and to absorb what we’re told about feckless spongers living a life that many of us envy but it’s not true. It’s not true. When you lose benefits you lose your home. There are not enough hostel places. Begging and street or hidden homelessness or prison will be obvious outcomes. Consider the effects of that on a person. If that's too wishy washy, consider the effects on the economy.

The premise behind these proposals is not a bad one. Getting into a positive daily rhythm, increased physical activity and social interaction are good for all of us. I trust that IDS has offered this proposal based on sound empirical evidence, but it lacks understanding and it lacks empathy. No one involved in this proposal has one pair of worn out trainers and one and a half tracksuits with some ancient underwear as their entire wardrobe. What is this persons self esteem likely to be like? What about their internal locus of evaluation? If this person is the best authority on their life, what might this suggest about their life? How is their self-concept expressed? How much denial and distortion are they indulging in and how much are we?

Rowan Williams is more likely to be correct in his analysis of how increasing compulsion and surveillance may affect the long term unemployed, simply because he starts from an attempt at empathy. Empathy doesn’t have a role in pubic policy and that's one reason why we have so many long-term unemployed people.

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