Government responsibility for unemployment includes how the unemployed feel

By Bernadette Meaden
February 16, 2012

In a recent BBC debate on unemployment, there was an unbearably poignant moment, when a middle-aged man, Michael, was asked how he felt about being unemployed. ‘I feel humiliated’ he said, close to tears, ‘I feel like it’s my fault’.

He went on to tell of a young woman he knew who had killed herself because she despaired of ever getting a job.

We could argue about whether or not the government is responsible for Michael being unemployed. There is a stronger case that the government and the media share some blame for how he feels about it.

The government has constantly talked of people not wanting to work. It is pursuing a punitive approach to force people into any available job. Increasingly they act and speak as if unemployed people are themselves the problem, when they are actually the victims of economic forces beyond their control.

A Prince’s Trust report has shown the devastating impact of unemployment on the psychological and emotional wellbeing of young people. It makes heart-rending reading, from the upsetting, ‘Half of young people seeking work (50 per cent) say that visiting the job centre makes them feel ashamed’ to the alarming ‘Nearly six in ten young people unemployed for a year or more (58 per cent) said that they have felt suicidal’

I have previously referred to Daniel Sage’s valuable work on the media campaign to stigmatise benefit claimants. Mr. Sage has shown that references in the press to ‘benefit cheats’ and ‘scroungers’ rose dramatically in 2009/2010, in the run-up to the General Election.

Actual fraud in the benefit system is, according to the DWP’s own figures quite low - around two per cent. But the public have been actively encouraged to think there is an army of lazy people out there bleeding the country dry. It’s easy to understand why. Imagine how much more opposition there would have been to the Welfare Reform Bill if benefit claimants had always been portrayed sympathetically.

The government need to start talking honestly about unemployment, acknowledging that unemployed people are not to blame for their own fate – that’s like blaming wet people for the rain. And it may be some time before they get back into work, because the jobs are simply not there at the moment. Until the jobs are there, give them compassion and support, and do not make them feel guilty and ashamed to claim benefits. Any other approach will cruelly strip people of pride and self esteem.

There is plenty of information available to the government to show how vulnerable and fragile unemployed people can feel. This places a huge responsibility on ministers and officials not to send out messages that may increase their distress or even push them over the edge.

Given his professed Catholic faith, perhaps the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions might ponder this quote from the 1986 pastoral letter from US Catholic bishops, “Economic Justice for All”.

"Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. The pastoral letter begins with the human person. We believe the person is sacred—the clearest reflection of God among us. Human dignity comes from God, not from nationality, race, sex, economic status, or any human accomplishment. We judge any economic system by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it. The economy should serve people, not the other way around."


© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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