Are unemployed people too lazy to look for work?
Policy Exchange have recently taken to making a widely reported claim that “recent research has suggested that Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) claimants spend as little as eight minutes a day searching for work.” But is it true?
The statistic is referenced in this report, and originally comes from this article. The methodology used is explained here, which reveals that the source of the data is the Harmonised European Time Use Survey. The UK data in this survey is described here: it is from the UK Time Use Survey, a household survey that was carried out 11 years ago.
A few key points about the survey:
- it is not recent, it was produced in 2000, a point at which the labour market was booming and Jobcentre Plus was not fully rolled out across the country;
- it is not a survey of JSA claimants, the unemployed people in the sample are those who classify themselves as unemployed according to the ILO definition (many of whom will not be claiming JSA);
- this analysis of the survey also shows that unemployed people spend an average of 22 minutes a day volunteering, 23 minutes a day on childcare and an average of 16 minutes a day in education and that employed people spend an average of no time at all on jobseeking;
- the same analysis shows that unemployed people spend an average of 36 minutes a day in work and an average of 7 minutes a day traveling to work – indicating, in the words of the researcher, that ‘some caution is required in interpreting the results’.
Policy Exchange are clearly well within their rights to argue that some unemployed people do not look hard enough for work, and that the Jobcentre regime is too lax. I disagree with them: people claiming JSA have to visit a Jobcentre to sign on every two weeks, at which point they have to demonstrate they have taken action to comply with a specified jobseeker’s agreement. If they refuse job offers, refuse to apply for jobs (which can be up to an hour and a half’s travel time away), or fail in some other way to comply with their agreement, they can be sanctioned, losing their benefits for at least 13 weeks. Those who are simply suspected of not doing enough can be required, at any point in their claim, to undertake 30 hours a week of ‘mandatory work activity‘, as well as continuing to engage in jobsearch activity on top of their forced community work placement. Living on JSA is also very difficult – it is only £67.50 a week. As Richard has shown, the UK social security system is one of the least generous in the developed world.
But whatever my difference of opinion with Policy Exchange, I worry that their use of statistics is serving to unfairly misrepresent unemployed people (although I know their motives are genuine – we all want to see more people in jobs). But in a week when Ed Milliband announced that Labour would reward those who show ‘responsibility’ by working (thereby implying that the irresponsible are actively choosing to avoid employment) and The Telegraph reported that the ‘workshy [are] to go to the back of the queue: coalition ministers want to stop those who are hard-working being disadvantaged when social housing is allocated’ unemployed people do not need to be vilified further. Unemployment has not risen by over 800,000 in the last three years because those out of work suddenly became less motivated – it’s high and rising because there aren’t enough jobs. Presenting those who are out of work as lazy is simply unfair – and is not substantiated by Policy Exchange’s data.