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Britain’s Household Benefit Cap restricts the amount of benefit income unemployed households can receive. In this article, it is examined using material held at the UK’s National Archives recording debates about a proposal to introduce a similar policy – a benefit limit – in the first Thatcher Conservative government elected in 1979. It was rejected, but the Household Benefit Cap was introduced three decades later. The article locates debates about, and the practice of restricting benefit income, in perennial social security concerns with the financial incentive to do waged work. The article argues that while there are material differences that help explain the different policy outcomes in 1980 and 2010, they can primarily be explained by changing ideas about the roles of social security policy, including the development of the ‘incentive paradigm’ concerned with manipulating behaviour; a loss of concern with the hardship that would come with the introduction of a benefit restriction and a view that institutions other than the state are better placed to address poverty and buttress work incentives.
Disabled people, work and welfare has focused on various aspects of relationships between work and income replacement social welfare benefits for disabled people. In various ways, the chapters critically engage with the idea that ‘work is the best form of welfare’ for disabled people, which is visible in Britain and many of the other countries that the book has focused on. There are several themes that can be drawn from the chapters of the book. These include:
• the nature of wage work as a process;
• difficulties for disabled people that arise from the desire to commodify their labour power;
• difficulties that there are in making the claim that wage work provides for disabled people both a secure and above-poverty-level income.
While these themes are in practice inextricably linked, for analytical purposes we look at them separately below.
Wage work as a socially embedded process
We see, for example, that as it is dependent on the productive value of individual workers, the labour process under capitalist forms of accumulation is something that inherently acts against the employment of disabled people. Competitive individualism and the extraction of profit from the work of employees means that at a fundamental level disabled people are disadvantaged in labour markets. This is because, depending on who one reads, even within disability studies, they are perceived by employers as being less productive than other, non-disabled workers or because of their impairment, they are less productive as they are unable to labour within the temporal and rhythmic demands of wage work and/or its intensity. There have, of course, been various attempts to address such issues, for example, the payment of subsidies to employers so that essentially it becomes profitable to employ them; the retraining and rehabilitation of disabled workers; work experience and tasters that are not only supposed to help (re)attach workless disabled people to labour markets, but also to demonstrate their potential to employers. Such interventions, though, are only required because of the characteristics, such as competitive individualism and economic productivity, that underpin capitalist notions of wage work and other employment activity.
It is within this context that Chapters Twelve to Fourteen discussed aspects of alternatives to wage work as being the activity through which disabled people are valued. Drawing on examples from Britain and Canada, Chapter Twelve discussed the value of work outside of that necessarily concerned with productive value and profit maximisation.
Encouraged by national and international pressures, there have been attempts in many countries in recent decades to increase the employment rates of disabled people. In Britain, for example, Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 developed several policies with such aims. These policies have been extended since 2010 by Britain's coalition government. The British example is instructive because it demonstrates the range of often contradictory considerations – economic, moral and social – that have framed various governments’ desire to increase the participation of disabled people in wage work. These include:
• a concern with tackling the social exclusion – defined as exclusion from wage work – of disabled people;
• a concern with the human rights of disabled people – that facilitating access to paid employment is an important way in which commitments to human rights can be addressed;
• a concern with the numbers of people receiving out-of-work benefits, including disability benefits, because of the alleged effects that such benefits have on recipients’ motivation for paid work and their wider attitudes (the so-called ‘dependency culture’);
• a concern with the intergenerational transmission of wage worklessness from disabled people to their offspring;
• the economic need to increase the number of people competing for wage work through what has been referred to as the ‘effective labour supply’ and the reserve army of labour to constrain wage inflation;
• economic redistribution – for example to tackle child and older people's poverty;
• a reorientation of welfare benefit support for disabled people that has emphasised a contractual, rather than rights-based, approach and which as a consequence has increased the expectation that in order to receive such support, individuals will have to act in a prosocial manner, most notably through attempts to (re)enter wage work at the earliest opportunity;
• a desire to save money, particularly but not exclusively after the financial crash of 2008 and the ensuing drive for austerity (see, for example, Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Welfare Reform, 1998; Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2006, 2008a, 2008b, 2010a, 2010b; for discussion, see Piggott and Grover, 2009; Bambra and Smith, 2010; Grover and Piggott, 2010, 2013; Houston and Lindsay, 2010; Deacon and Patrick, 2011; Garthwaite, 2011; Patrick et al, 2011; Lindsay and Houston, 2013).
Led by the disability movement’s concern with the employment choices faced by disabled people, this controversial book uses sociological and philosophical approaches, as well as international examples, to critically engage with possible alternatives to paid work for disabled people.
In Britain and many other countries across the developed world, there have been changes to social security systems in recent decades that have attempted to commodify the labour power of disabled people. In Britain, a tripartite approach has been taken. This includes:
• the development of active labour market policies that are enforced through increasingly strict conditionality regimes;
• the replacing in 2008 of Incapacity Benefit (IB) with Employment and Support (ESA), the structural features of which are supposed to engender a closer relationship between disabled people and labour markets;
• an attempt through legislation, such as the Equality Act 2010 and its predecessor (the Disability Discrimination Act 1995), and policies (such as Access to Work), to reduce the discrimination faced by disabled people in accessing paid work.
In this chapter, we are not particularly concerned with the detail of these policies, but with the general thrust of policy that has focused primarily on placing greater pressure on disabled people to sell their labour power in open markets. The central issue considered is whether, given the material (the impoverishment of disabled people) and psychosocial (for instance, the creation of fear, anxiety and distress) effects that this process has caused, there might be an alternative to forcing disabled people to compete for wage labour alongside their disabled and non-disabled peers.
Disability and capitalism: some tensions for the social model of disability
Central to the social model of disability is the idea that disability is a form of social oppression, rather than being the consequence of an individual having a particular impairment or combination of impairments. In particular, the social model of disability suggests the material disadvantage that disabled people face is the consequence of the ways in which societies, and particularly their economies, are structured. In this context, it is argued, following Marxian ideas on the chronology of economic organisation, that the rise of industrial capitalism from the late 18th century resulted in the exclusion of disabled people from the one activity – wage labour – through which the basis of capitalism is expressed.
Finkelstein (1980) and others (for example, Gleeson, 1999; see also Chapter Fourteen, this volume) have argued that the way in which pre-industrial Feudal societies were organised allowed for the social use of the skills and capacities of disabled people.
This chapter considers state responses to low wages. It develops from the view that low wages are economically problematic for both individuals and the state, as they create dilemmas related to social reproduction, and financial incentives to take waged work. As the solutions to these dilemmas have been expressed differently at various moments in England and later in the UK, the chapter places policies aimed at addressing low wages in their historical context. It traces concerns with wage supplementation under the Elizabethan Poor Law to the now infamous Poor Law Commission report of 1834, and the consequential prohibition of such forms of poor relief in the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. The chapter demonstrates how those concerns with wage supplements cast a long shadow over social security policy-making until the 1970s, since when, the arguments of the 1834 Poor Law Commission have been reversed. No longer are wage supplements defined as being economically and socially problematic. In contrast, they are now seen as being beneficial to individuals and wider society, encouraging people into (albeit low) paid work, and helping to flexibilise late modern capital accumulation in Britain.
It is within this context that the chapter considers the coalition government's new form of social assistance – Universal Credit (UC) – that arguably brings to its logical conclusion trends begun in the 1970s. While UC might be seen as representing a break with post-1834 poor relief and post-Second World War social assistance, as it removes distinctions between the employed and unemployed, this chapter argues that the lasting influence of the 1834 Poor Law Commission's concerns can be seen in UC's extension of conditionality to people in waged work to ensure that they earn as much money as possible.
Finally, the chapter considers the potential alternative to wage supplements – a living wage – an idea that is currently enjoying a revival in Britain. It is argued that living wages have a great deal of potential. However, that potential is limited by an economic orthodoxy that frames hegemonic approaches to living wages and which means that, in a time of public spending austerity, they have arguably become little more than a means of reducing the cost to the state of wage supplements.