Thursday, December 29, 2011

Political blog post: unemployment

One of the unexpected side-effects of working in a job tangentially linked to public health is that I keep discovering new things. I’ve become a gatherer of noteworthy trivia and factoids that actually scare me when I think about them.

One of the more shocking was this: chronic worklessness has an equivalent debilitating effect on a person’s health as smoking 20 cigarettes a day. That means that if someone is unemployed for a long period of time, they are statistically more likely to die at a younger age than someone with a job – to the same tune as if they puffed a packet of death-sticks every 24 hours.

We know the effects of smoking, and most sensible people would support a total ban if any government had the balls to do it. Lung cancer is a truly horrible way to die. I've seen it kill someone I care about, so I know that. But we don’t see the wasting disease of the soul that is unemployment in quite the same way – its impact is hidden.

And yet draw a map of disease and early mortality in any part of the country and the map will always follow a pattern: low mortality = poverty = high smoking = high obesity (i.e. poor nutrition) = low child birth weight = chronic or prolonged unemployment = poor housing = higher cancer rates, more heart diseases, more illness per se.

Poverty and suffering from ill health go hand in hand on any public health map drawn up ever.

And poverty and worklessness go hand in hand on any demographic map drawn up ever.

Just before Christmas the Government announced it was going to put over £400m into efforts to tackle ‘problem families’ – i.e. dysfunctional families with ‘feckless’ dads, tearaway teens, benefits cheats and criminal genes. This wasn’t new news, but it was reported as such. The Government previously said it was going to spend over £300m in October. Inflation means everything costs more a few months later.

A Daily Mail article that ran in October carried the headline “How Britain's Shameless families cost the taxpayer £8bn every year.”

It went on to say:
“The summer riots have convinced the government that drastic steps are required to tackle a hardcore of workless neighbourhoods where no-one has a proper job.

The coalition says Labour’s welfare legacy means there are many parts of Britain where three generations of families have never worked and live a life funded by state benefits.

Some neighbourhoods, particularly in inner cities and on large estates, are so blighted by long-term unemployment that no-one on a street has a job and children never see anyone getting up and going to work.”
We have a scenario, then, where generations of young people are growing up in workless households, where to be unemployed is the norm. There’s a reason for that. Good jobs – and by that I mean jobs that will enable you to pay the rent or mortgage, buy nourishing, nutritional food, pay for insurance, pay for heating and lighting, clothe your kids and yourself, and maybe have enough left over to pay for a monthly night out at the cinema – are hard to come by.

Whose fault is that, exactly?

According to Government, and reproduced faithfully by the bleating Mail, Labour’s welfare policies are responsible for “three generations of workless families”.

I know it feels like forever since Tony Blair’s New Labour victory in 1997, but that wasn’t three generations ago. It must be linked to whoever was in charge before Tony.

And what is Labour’s record when it comes to employment, anyway? One of the sea-changes in British politics came after the Second World War. The newly-installed Labour Government is still, I think, the only British Government ever to state a commitment to full employment. There would be jobs for people as Britain rebuilt itself – that was the plan.

It was ambitious, but it wasn’t a pipe-dream. It was founded on an ethic that saw the social good in employment. Work wasn’t just about earning money – or even a cynical exercise in keeping the population occupied. Work was something that drew communities together. If the majority of people in a community work in local business or manufacturing, it creates cohesion. Never mind the individual health benefits that we now know accrue from being engaged in work.

Another sea-change was the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s. The privatisation of national industries – gas, telecoms, electric – were all justified using economic arguments. Nationalised industries were inefficient, they had too many employees, they were monopolies that kept prices high.

So they closed the pits and the steelworks, the mills and the mines.

Interesting story – when my Dad was 16, my Granddad had a word with a friend and got my Dad a job at the steel mill that loomed above the small Welsh village where he grew up. Dad had other ideas – he wanted to study medicine and become a doctor, but many of his contemporaries went to work there.

In many respects, Dad chose a hard path. Studying medicine was even more brutal in the 60s than it is today – and I know enough junior doctors to know it’s pretty brutal today. He worked long hours, and later in hospitals and as a GP worked all hours of the day and night caring for people.

But he wasn’t thrown on the scrapheap when the steelworks was shut down in the name of efficiency in the late 1980s. He wasn’t forced, like so many people in their late 40s, to retrain for a new career and cross your fingers there would be work at the end of it. Being a doctor was a stressful career choice, no doubt about it. But he wouldn’t have traded places with the people facing an uncertain future before a retirement in penury.

That’s the thing about ‘efficiency’ – it’s only a benefit in the short-term to the balance sheet of the company. In the long-term, and we’re talking the inter-generational long-term, the social efficiency of keeping ‘inefficient’ industries going is far greater.

So, now the Tories are irked that billions are being spent on benefits for workless communities. Well, you reap what you sow.

Of course, the middle class tax-payers who senselessly vote Tory and equally senselessly read the Daily Mail are regularly up in arms about the work-deprived communities their taxes now subsidise. But Tory policy created those areas blighted by unemployment. Here’s an idea: Stop voting for the short-term, slash-and-burn, quick-buck opportunists.

The history of Tory economic policy is about short-sightedly sacrificing social capital and infrastructure for a few pence. There was never a golden egg they weren’t willing to kill the goose for. As a frivolous example, in the 60s they axed hundreds of picturesque railway routes throughout Britain, never thinking that one day heritage railways could potentially be money-spinners. (The Severn Valley railway once ran through the Ironbridge Gorge into the heart of Shrewsbury – think what that would be like as a tourist attraction now!)

When you are blinkered by the balance sheet you only see the money you will ‘save’, not the opportunities you will miss out on.

That was the 60s. In the 80s they hammered heavy industry – creating poverty blackspots that have drained the public purse for decades in the process.

What are they doing now? Youth unemployment is heading towards an all-time high. Incidentally, so are domestic fuel bills – ending those monopolistic nationalised industries certainly didn’t work in the consumers favour. The NHS is in a process of privatisation; with plans to corral off half of NHS beds for paying customers.

We’re told the NHS, like so much else, has to change because it is ‘inefficient’. But there are different ways of defining 'efficiency'. The NHS is actually very efficient at delivering a central element of what makes a society civilised – care at the point of need for all members of society, regardless of their economic status.

That principle is a bottom line worth more than any balanced books will ever be.

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