Thursday, 25 April 2013

Evidence shows 0% of long-term unemployed people are failing to look for work

There is a lot of debate, particularly fuelled by the political right and the tabloid press, about the extent to which unemployed people are genuinely looking for work.  People on the right argue that there needs to be a tighter sanctions regime so those who are failing to look for work are encouraged to do so.  People on the left claim that the problem is not lack of effort, but lack of vacancies.

To clear this debate up a bit, I thought I would share some interesting data from the Annual Population Survey (APS).  The APS is an exceptionally large dataset of over 300,000 people.  This means that anything found in the data is quite likely to be true of the wider population.

The APS asks a simple question to all its respondents: 'Have you looked for paid work in the past 4 weeks?'.  If the right are correct, we might expect a decent proportion of unemployed respondents to answer 'no'.  If the left are correct, we'd be expect a very low figure to answer 'no'.

The number of unemployed not looking for work is tiny - 2%

In total, 11480 unemployed people answered this question.  Of this group, 98% (11,428) said they had looked for work and just 2% (232) said they hadn't.  This suggests 'idleness' amongst the unemployed is a relatively small problem: just 1 in 50 of the total out of work.

Nevertheless, this is a slightly misleading - and exaggerating - number.  Much of the time, the right is generally focused on people who have been out of work for a decent period of time: those who have, in the jargon, been 'parked on benefits'.

So what about the long-term unemployed?

Thus a better way to assess whether we have a 'scrounger' problem is to look exclusively at the job-seeking efforts of the relatively long-term unemployed, say those who have been out of work for 6 months or more.  Reducing the sample in this way gives us 6148 long-term unemployed (54% of the total out of work).

Now, here is the interesting statistic.  Out of the 6148 people who have been out of work for 6 months or more, just 15 - yes, 15 - had failed to look for work over the past month.  This is 0.2%: or, if you like, a small enough group of people to make 'idleness' essentially non-existent amongst the unemployed.

Per cent of long-term unemployed who have a) looked for work in past month or b) not looked for work in past month

If we extrapolate this to the wider population, this means that out of an estimated 1,400,000 (54% of the total unemployed) people might be long-term unemployed, just 2,800 have not recently looked for work.   And it is this small minority - rather than the 1.4 million mass of long-term unemployed - that Coalition rhetoric is almost exclusively targeted towards.

A non-existent problem

There will be obvious retorts here from right-wingers.  They might say people aren't telling the truth; but they have no real incentive to lie as this is an anonymous survey.  They might also say that we don't know how much job-seeking long-term unemployed people are doing, which is true and which could be answered with the proper data.  However, what we do know from the APS is that nearly every long-term unemployed person is actively looking for a job.  A fact that makes the current furore over the benefits system even more difficult - and infuriating - to understand.

1 comment:

  1. Your last paragraph here is rather telling:

    There will be obvious retorts here from right-wingers. They might say people aren't telling the truth; but they have no real incentive to lie as this is an anonymous survey

    Yes the survey is anonymous but do you really think people would stick their hands up and say actually I couldn't be bothered to look for a job? Especially as they know they would lose their benefits if they did. I'm not sure I'd trust things to stay anonymous in that position.

    Also I think we do a disservice to working people to play down the problem. This is anecdotal evidence I realise but it's all most people have so I'll tell the tale anyway. Several years ago I owned a small chain of retail stores. As is usually the case in retail there was a reasonably high turnover of junior staff. As it's minimum wage jobs or there abouts the easiest way to recruit is through the job centre. I tended to be advertising for a new member of staff once a month or so, I'd say that means in 2 years I probably interviewed more than 200 people, a reasonable sample size I'd say. I remember very clearly being shocked at the first person (from the first advert I ever placed) who said to me "Sorry mate I've only come for the interview because the job centre made me. I don't want to lose my benefits though so could you let them know I just didn't get the job?" My initial reaction was anger and no I damn well wouldn't lie for you. This anger though became resignation though after the second, third, fourth and tenth. Eventually I lost count of the number of times I heard that but it was certainly higher than 1/4 of applicants. Don't get me wrong there were plenty of good people too and I took some great staff on but there was a definite and sizable proportion of people who didn't want to work and were quite prepared to lie so they didn't have to.

    I also have to say the people who were the angriest about this were my staff rather than me. The people earning relatively low wages who struggled to get by and worked every hour of overtime they could only to see the tax they paid subsidise people who simply didn't want to work. I shared their anger at the injustice to be honest and still do. I don't for a minute argue we shouldn't have a safety net but it should not be a lifestyle choice and to argue there is no problem there is doing a massive disservice to the working poor who see the evidence of this on their doorsteps. It's all well and good for political bloggers and those in the Westminster bubble to pontificate on this but it's real people out there who are outraged. The left might not like it but a tougher stance on actual bogus claims is a vote winner as all the polls are showing.