The debate about 'workfare' - defined as requiring benefit claimants to participate in some form of work-based activity - has raged this past week. But the debate has largely been clouded by hyperbole from both those for and against. Depending on your position, you are either likely to see the claimants involved as slaves or scroungers.
In times like this it's helpful to have some evidence on the matter at hand. A key argument against workfare is the humiliation it might involve for participants. Working for huge, profit-making companies like Tesco for around £1 an hour - whilst those around you get paid 6x as much - is hardly good for self-esteem.
this paper from 2001 by Strandh, who considered whether participation in employment programmes boosted the well-being of participants in Sweden.
The theory that such programmes might be good for unemployed people is based upon arguments from social psychology that work fulfils certain human functions, like time structure, social contacts and collective endeavour. Consequently, while workfare programmes might not ease the economic woe of unemployment, they may help the unemployed overcome the more psychological damage wrought by being unemployed.
In short, Strandh explored three different types of work-based programme: vocational training, work experience schemes (which take place outside the labour market, e.g. community work) and workplace participation. It is this latter type of Swedish programme - workplace participation - which is most similar to the Coalition's workfare programme, as it involves unemployed people gaining experience in an ordinary labour market setting.
What Strandh wanted to know was whether participation in these schemes was associated with better well-being for participants (compared to those who didn't participate). The results are quite surprising - especially given the furore of the past week. In short, when controlling for a range of other factors, Strandh found that participation in work-based programmes was significantly associated with higher well-being amongst unemployed participants.
Further - and this is where it gets interesting - out of the three different types of programme Strandh looked at, he found that the programme with the strongest effect was the 'workplace participation' scheme (e.g., the one most similar in theory to the workfare scheme here). Indeed, the 'vocational training' scheme had no effect on well-being. The positive consequences of workplace participation schemes were even stronger for those who had been unemployed for a year or more, while the other two types of programme had zero effect for this group.
It's true that comparing Swedish programmes to British ones might be like comparing apples with oranges - and I'm also not suggesting that current Government policy is the right one. But studies like Strandh's show that requiring unemployed people to participate in work-based programmes has the potential to have positive outcomes. We thus need a much more nuanced debate in the UK. One which isn't about whether conditionality is 'right or wrong', but what about which conditionality is right and which conditionality is wrong.