Johann Hari: Yes, for welfare you must be made to work

We need to transform the safety net into a trampoline that bounces you back

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Sometimes in politics you have to suppress your gut reaction. When you hear about the Government's proposals, published today, to force benefits recipients to work, your stomach may turn gaseous and sore. They will be sold using some of the ugliest associations, with government spin-doctors smearing benefits recipients as all Shameless-style "scroungers" to The Sun, and pledging to "crack down" on them. But I think – broadly, and beyond this foul rhetoric – it is the right thing to do.

There are two reasons to believe there is a problem with the current benefits system. One is loathsome, and one is true.

You can believe the system is flawed because it takes Your Tax Money, and gives it to poor people. You hear this argument incessantly: why should my cash go to chavs/Vicky Pollards/insert-your-dehumanising-caricature-here? But if you are really worried about "scroungers" – people who get all the benefits of our society, but put nothing back – there's a group fleecing us for far more who you should start with: the super-rich. They can only make their money because their workforce is educated, kept healthy and defended by the taxes of all of us – yet they evade and avoid a stunning £42bn of taxes a year. That's enough to treble spending on primary schools, or to hand you the biggest tax cut in history. If you are so worried about Your Taxes, start with them.

But there is another argument for changing the benefits system: as it stands, it can leave people in a rut and let their potential leech away into nothing.

If you want a parable of this lost potential, look at my best friend from school, Andy. When we were teenagers, we would skive off together and hang about in the Trocodero centre, playing arcade games and smoking spliffs in the toilets. After our GCSEs, we dropped out. For a year we mooched around London, watching old films, playing video games, and – as all teenage boys do – moodily hating the world.

But at the end of that year, some impulse, some need, made me go back to do my A-levels, while Andy stayed in his house and mooched some more. He went onto benefits – and, with a few brief swings around the New Deal, he has never come off; not in the 15 years since. He is clever and funny and he could be making an amazing contribution, but inactivity is infectious. Once you sink into it, it consumes you. The muscles of work soon atrophy; you become convinced you can't do anything. With each year that passed, he saw the world of work as more alien. Andy has reacted to his worklessness with listless depression; lots of other young men respond with aggression.

Andy is hardly a lone anecdote. There are more than a million young "Neets" – Not in education, employment or training – in Britain today. We have a higher proportion than any other OECD country. Go to the place where I was born – Glasgow East, site of the potentially Brown-busting by-election this Thursday – and you will see them spreading before you in great concrete estates of poverty. You can taste the ennui in the air. Ask the kids what they want to do when they grow up and they shrug with heartbreaking indifference and say, "Dunno".

If those of us on the left get trapped into defending all this, we will lose the argument. This isn't what the Welfare State was intended to look like. You were not supposed to fall asleep in the safety net and raise your kids there so they know nothing else. What we need to do is transform the safety net into a trampoline that bounces you back up when you start to fall.

The Government is proposing to end a system where you can remain workless and lost for life. According to the leaks, it will work like this. If you apply for benefits, you will be swiftly matched up with jobs or training in your local area, and required to choose one. If there are none, or if you keep losing the jobs, you will be required to work in government schemes in return for the cash. If you absolutely and consistently refuse to do that, then you will not receive money. Andy wouldn't have slipped into his listlessness; he would have been firmly locked into the motion and social interaction of work.

There's an added spur to retool the Welfare State now. If Labour doesn't do it, the Tories will – and their plans really are brutal. David Cameron has said repeatedly that he wants to adopt the welfare reform introduced in Wisconsin in the 1990s. So how does that compare?

In the Labour model, you will never be cut off, provided you are willing to work. In Wisconsin, you can only receive benefits for two years in your entire life, and every week you claim, the clock is ticking. Once you hit your two years, that's it: your benefits are severed forever. After a long boom, claimants are only starting to hit the limit now the economy is turning down. The result? Food banks are running out of food, while homeless shelters run out of beds.

In the Labour proposals, you don't have to go to work until your youngest child is seven. In the Wisconsin model, you are forced to leave your baby at three months old. A typical victim is Clara, who has two small children and was forced to take a job two hours away by bus. "I have to get [my kids] up at five in the morning, and they don't want to go [to daycare]. I yell at them. They don't deserve it," she said. She pleaded at her benefits office: "Please don't make me go." When she stayed with her sobbing kids for a day, her job and benefits were immediately cut off.

There is one area where Cameron wants to diverge from the Wisconsin model – by making it even harsher. Welfare reform didn't happen in isolation. At the same time, the US government super-charged the system of tax credits, increasingly them from $5bn (£2.5bn) a year to $50bn. This meant that if you were poor and moved into work, you suddenly received fat top-ups on your wage-cheque each month from the government. Working really did pay. Professor Bruce Meyer, of the US National Bureau of Economic Research, calculates this was the sole reason why poverty didn't dramatically increase as welfare recipients were transferred in those first years into low-paid jobs. But David Cameron wants to introduce welfare reform while simultaneously slashing tax credits; he derides them as akin to the nationalised industries of the 1970s.

So there is a double-whammy of reasons why the slow work of helping Britain's estates back to work and to life has to be launched by Labour today. Leaving people like Andy in his rut isn't compassion; it's indifference. And if Labour doesn't press him to work, the Tories will – while trashing the lives of a lot of poor people along the way.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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