In September, David Cameron stood before the Tory Party conference, took out a lighter, and tried to set fire to the safety net that protects the British poor from splattering into extreme poverty.
Nobody noticed at the time: he mentioned in a few throwaway lines that he wants to look westward and copy the Wisconisn model of welfare reform. These distant-sounding proposals might sound attractive at first, because they have latched on to a real problem. There are great swathes of British cities where everyone is jobless, often for life.
In Liverpool and Glasgow, a quarter of the entire population is on out-of-work benefits – at a time of spurting economic growth. When unemployment benefit was designed, its creators never imagined that there would be hundreds of thousands of people who went on to them at 18 and only came off at the age of 65 when their pensions began.
I don't object to this for the bogus Tory reason that it is too expensive. All unemployment benefits combined cost less than 3 per cent of public spending; we can afford it. No, I object because it is bad for the recipients. On my nephew's council estate, I often ask his little friends – seven- and eight-year-olds – what they want to do when they grow up. Most of them just shrug. Their parents and sometimes grandparents have never worked; they don't think they will either.
To leave people in a workless rut for life isn't compassion. It's apathy. Work provides your life with a sense of purpose and social interaction. Without it, you become lost and depressed. Reorienting the welfare state so it helps people into work, rather than keeping them at poverty-level listlessness, is a good thing.
The Wisconsin model has some flickers of a good programme to get people from welfare to work – but it is also packed with measures that are designed to punish them for their "dysfunction".
Let's look at what happens to when you go into a benefits centre in Wisconsin to seek help. You will almost certainly be a woman with kids: 90 per cent of claimants are. You will be assigned a Financial and Employment Planner, who will show you a "ladder". The top rung is your goal: unsubsidised employment in the private sector. The next rung is subsidised work in the private sector, or a community service job created to provide the unemployed with something constructive to do. You will be matched up with one of these jobs. If you fail to turn up, you will be punished. For every hour you miss, you will be docked $5.15 from your benefits. If you don't turn up at all, you don't get anything.
Then they'll tell you that having kids makes no difference. Unless you have a baby that is less than three months old, you have to work full-time in whatever job they assign you. Put your kids in daycare and get out there.
Then they explain the real kicker. There is a federal time limit for benefits. In your entire life, you can only ever claim two years' worth of government help. Every week you receive government subsidy, the clock is ticking. Once your two years are up, you won't get any help, ever again.
Professor Sharon Hays, at the University of Southern California, has conducted the most detailed study of US welfare reform. One typical recipient she interviewed was a 30-year old single mother called Clara, who had a three-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy. She came to the benefits centre sobbing, saying that the job they were forcing her to take at the other side of town – spending two hours either way on the bus – made it impossible to see her children. "I have to get them up at five in the morning, and they don't want to go. I yell at them. They don't deserve it. Please don't make me go back." She couldn't do it to her kids – so a few weeks later, she quit. The result was that she and her kids were immediately "sanctioned": no benefits at all for a month, and the clock was still ticking on her lifetime allocation.
Some of the Republicans who introduced these reforms admitted they are an attempt to enforce family values through the deterrent effect: if you choose to have kids on your own, baby, it'll hurt.
The changes were introduced in the middle of an almost unprecedented economic boom. As the economy cools for those at the bottom under Bush, more and more women are hitting the wall of their two-year limit. They are suddenly left with nothing. Hays found of all the women who received welfare reform, "one half are sometimes without enough money to buy food. One-third have to cut the size of meals. Almost half find themselves unable to pay their rent or utility bills. Many more families are turning to food banks, churches, and other charities for aid. In some locales, homeless shelters and housing assistance programmes are closing their doors to new customers, [and] food banks are running out of food." When a full-blown recession comes, the effect of these reforms will be even more bitter.
It is now clear that a Cameron administration would mark a real assault on single parents, punishing them through the tax system and the benefits system. Gordon Brown needs to counter this dystopian vision by offering a centre-left way to help the poor into work. The roots for this alternative have been laid over the past 10 years, using carrots as well as sticks. One friend of mine – a very depressed and demoralised guy who had never worked – was put on the New Deal and assigned a counsellor to help him find work. She took him and bought him a suit – something he'd never owned – and now he has a job and his confidence is growing slowly. In turn, tax credits top up the wages of people at the bottom of the economic pile, making sure that work pays more than benefits. These policies have successfully brought the number of people in out-of-work benefits down from 5.7 million to 4.7 million. Yet Cameron scorns all these programmes as "waste". He growls for "On Yer Bike" with no stabilisers.
Brown needs to super-charge his programmes. It is reasonable to say that since we all use goods and services, we all have to contribute towards them. So require all the unemployed to take part in the New Deal with well-funded help, advice and training – with cut-offs for the very few who refuse. For the people who don't make it into work afterwards, assign them to community service programmes, visiting the elderly, protecting our public spaces and more. And establish clear red lines to prevent the Cameron viciousness. No time limits, and a stipulation that single parents don't have to take part until their kids are safely at primary school.
This could be a real dividing line between the parties at the next election. While Labour wants to redesign the safety net for the poor, Cameron wants it to vanish in smoke – and then sting the eyes of single mums.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies