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Feeling motivated yet? Long-term unemployed people's perspectives on the implementation of workfare in Australia.


A common assumption of workfare programs is that many of the long term unemployed exhibit deficits in motivation to engage proactively in the search for paid work (Wanberg, Kanfer and Rotundo, 1999; Hawksworth, 1992). Such assumptions are based on the proposition that being on unemployment benefits undermines the development of attitudes and behaviour conducive to active labour market participation (Kalil, Schweingruber and Seefeldt, 2001; Greenwell, Leibowitz and Klerman, 1998). Often, these assumptions directly reflect the position taken by conservative social policy writers such as Lawrence Mead (1986) and Charles Murray (1994). From Mead (1986: 133), for example, we read such statements as:
 Whatever outward causes one cites, a mystery in the heart of no
 work [neologism in the original] remains--the passivity of the
 seriously poor in seizing the opportunities that apparently exist
 for them ... To explain no work, I see no avoiding some appeal
 to psychology or culture. Mostly, seriously poor adults appear to
 avoid work, not because of their economic situation, but because
 of what they believe (p. 12).

 In the absence of prohibitive barriers to employment, the
 question of the personality of the poor emerges as the key to
 understanding and overcoming poverty. Psychology is the last
 frontier in the search for the causes of low work effort ... Why
 do the poor not seize [the opportunities] as assiduously as the
 culture assumes they will? (p. 133)

In these explanations Mead positions the unemployed as a group of people at risk of being cast adrift from mainstream values and culture--a type of risk generated by their own diminished psychological and moral state. Mead's explanation of unemployment has been referred to as a 'pathological' theory of unemployment because it asserts that poverty is rooted in the character or behavioural problems of the poor (Hawkesworth, 1992).

Mead explicitly suggests that at the heart of the (apparent) lack of motivation are deficits in the self-efficacy of the unemployed. In his words: "the core of the culture of poverty seems to be inability to control one's life--what psychologists call inefficacy" (Mead, 1986, p. 144). Mead's solution is to subject the unemployed to policies and programs that combine 'help and hassle' to transform the unemployed subject into an active citizen. In countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United States these principles have been translated by policy makers to mean some form of financial sanction for non-compliance (hassle) and various forms of training and services (help). This approach is thought to promote work habits and improve self-esteem and lead to an employment outcome. In summary, it is designed to promote 'job readiness' in the unemployed (Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, 2000).

Despite their obvious policy popularity the assumptions upon which workfare programs are based remain largely untested. While these programs have been extensively applied in a range of western countries there has been little independent analysis of the effects of these programs on self-efficacy or employment (Borland and Tseng, 2005). While some critical attention has been given to the counter-productive effects of sanctions on job search behaviour (Ziguras et al, 2003), much less attention has been given to the effects that employment services have on individuals and their employment outcomes. Given the intractability of long-term unemployment and the significant amount of human and financial resources being devoted to workfare type programs in many western countries, these programs and the policy logic that sits behind them deserve critical attention.

Here we evaluate workfare programs on their own terms; that is, whether they improve the self-efficacy in the unemployed. Our attention is focused at the point of implementation. We suggest that, at ground level, the edicts of welfare-to-work policies meet up with the organizational framework of the employment service office, the operations of which is tightly structured by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations through the imposition of a powerful and controlling regulatory framework enforced through the mechanism of the contract. The attendant 'rules' are then sifted through the practical concerns and moral ideals of public servants and contracted employment consultants (Hupe and Hill, 2007; Hays, 2004). This complex mix of rules, values and concerns then confront the complicated lives of the women and men who also happen to be unemployed or underemployed and therefore subject to welfare reform. Taken together, these realities make the outcomes of welfare-to-work far less straightforward than policymakers lead us to believe.

We undertake a grounded assessment of workfare policies and employment service programs, drawing on the preliminary findings from an Australian Research Council funded study that has involved 3 sequential in-depth interviews with 75 long-term unemployed (defined as unemployed for more than twelve months) across Australia over a three year period. As a consequence of welfare-to-work policies and associated compliance requirements, long term unemployed people are more likely to use employment services for significant periods of time. In this respect, they are in the best position to judge whether these new measures are effective in terms of improving self-efficacy and gaining paid employment. For this reason, we present their perspectives on the question of whether or not welfare-to-work policies and their associated employment services can achieve the sorts of psychological transformation the policy orientation suggests is both desirable and possible. Before turning to those voices, we revisit the notion of self efficacy to inform our subsequent evaluation.

In Australia, the aim of employment services generally is articulated by government as helping people to find and keep work and in regard to 'highly disadvantaged job-seekers' 'is defined in terms such as 'building self-confidence to find work' and 'success in finding work' (DEWR, 2006). Associated active labour market programs, such as the Australian Government's Work for the Dole scheme go even further claiming that the programs aims to provide opportunities for unemployed people to "build networks, improve self-esteem, communication skills and motivation" (Department of Family and Community Services, 2002a section In these statements participation in a range of workfare programs is equated with improving motivation and self-esteem among the long-term unemployed.

The concepts of self-esteem and motivation are now central to the discourse of employment services in a host of western countries. In the psychological literature, the broader concept of self-efficacy is associated with the promotion of intrinsic motivation, higher self-esteem and better performance (Witzel and Mercer, 2003). Self-efficacy refers to:

'beliefs in one's capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments.... People's beliefs in their efficacy have diverse effects. Such beliefs influence the courses of action people choose to pursue, how much effort they put forth in given endeavours, how long they will persevere in the face of obstacles and failures, their resilience to adversity' (Bandura, 1997: 2).

The psychological literature on how to promote self-efficacy is quite clear. Self-efficacy is derived from four main sources: observing valued role models (especially aspirational models); successfully practicing a skill or behaviour; receiving encouragement and support from valued others; and developing self-supporting emotions (Bandura, 1997; Gagne and Medsker, 1996). In the context of workfare programs increases in self-confidence and efficacy will, presumably, lead to rising levels of intrinsic motivation among the unemployed and increased levels of employment. Keeping this in mind, we turn now to the experiences of our respondents.

Experiences of Australian Workfare: the Job Network

Here we report on people's experiences of Australia's version of workfare, in particular their reflections on engagement with the Australian Job Network and their subjective understandings of self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation and self-esteem. We note at this point that the study from which these data are drawn was designed to illuminate a stage in the lives of a group of Australians thrust into a type of relationship with the state which most people never experience. To that end, it is ethnographic in intent in that it gives voice to those not readily heard in social scientific research and evaluation. Accordingly, it does not, and cannot speak to all experiences of the Job Network.

Established in 1998, the Job Network consists of one hundred and three non-profit and for-profit providers which operate employment services across the country (Thomas, 2007). It is publically funded and heavily regulated through a variety of means--through the use of key performance indicators embedded in contracts, through a comparative evaluative system known as the 'star ratings', and through the application of an IT-based information system that allows departmental officers to review the activities of front-line operatives. The Job Network offers a continuum of assistance to different groups of unemployed people--from job matching to those deemed 'job ready' to personal support for those with multiple barriers to employment. For our purposes here, it offers forms of 'intensive assistance' customised to an individual's circumstances. When first a person engages with the Job Network, they are assessed using a standardised instrument known as the Job Seeker Classification Instrument. That assessment determines the type of assistance as well as the payments provided to the provider agencies. If assessed as having a high risk of unemployment, the person is referred to Intensive Customised Support Assistance. If their barriers to employment are very serious, they are referred to the Personal Support Program. The unemployed must engage with the Job Network in the manner prescribed by their case manager (and by the policy regime underpinning it), for failure to do so results in financial penalties in the form of benefit suspension. As such, it looms large in the lives of the unemployed.

Using a snowball sample, contacted initially via a range of methods (advertisements and articles in newspapers, radio interviews, Job Network or Personal Support providers, and Centrelink offices) we interviewed 75 long-term unemployed people in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria three times at roughly 12 monthly intervals. The interviews were semi-structured and covered several domains of people's lives: their education and work history, their paths to unemployment, their current living arrangements, their interactions with the Job Network and their attempts to find work, their approaches to managing life on benefits such as shopping, maintaining friendships and family networks, leisure activities and so forth. The interviews took approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours. They were transcribed and analysed using Nvivo with categories designed to capture the dimensions of each domain.

The demographics of the interview sample covers people aged between 20 and 55 (although two thirds of the sample are aged over 40), with an almost even split between male and female respondents. All had been unemployed for more than six months, with around 60% being unemployed (and thus on benefits) for more than twelve months, and the remaining 40% for more than two years at the time of the third interview. Some had accessed short term and casual jobs over the period but benefits remained their predominant means of surviving. All had used a range of workfare programs ranging from Work for the Dole to compulsory Job Search training. Even though the overarching policy goal of promoting self efficacy is common to all employment services, we focus our attention on the Job Network as it is the centrepiece of the Australian Government's implementation of welfare-to-work programs. Clearly such data can (and will) tell many stories. The purpose of this paper is quite specific; that is, to assess the 'hassle and help' in terms of its contribution to their motivation. As such, it tells only part of the story.

Going through the motions

'Time' is a dominant theme across the research participants' reflections on their interactions with the Job Network model. How our time is structured is strongly related to our sense of autonomy and our sense of agency (Eccles, 2002). In the case of unemployed people the dominant policy and program assumption is that this group either have plenty of time to spare, or in line with the government's policy of 'mutual obligation' it is not their time anyway. In other words, time spent 'job seeking' is what the long-term unemployed owe the government for receiving unemployment benefits. Paradoxically, in the interviews the phrase 'waste of time' comes up frequently in people's accounts of their experience of the Job Network. The sense of interactions being a waste of time has three dimensions: (1) frequent phone or face-to-face contact with the Job Network that does not lead to employment; (2) being required to undertake generic job search training courses that are not tailored to individuals' level of experience and skill; and (3) a perception of under-trained and overworked employment consultants offering 'unhelpful' advice. The sense of wasting time was significantly higher among those respondents who had been through various Job Network agencies over extended periods of time with little real result in securing paid employment. For this group of long-term unemployed people the generic Job Network service delivery model is not living up to its promise. The following for example from a woman in her late 40s at her third interview represents a typical response from this group: "I have been a member of most of them and not one of them has ever got me a job. So now I go through the local papers, it is better than coming in here and wasting the day".

The perception of time being wasted as a result of mutual obligation requirements was even more acute amongst those who had worked previously in skilled occupations and who were older. This comment from a male, who was made redundant in his early 50s at his second interview: "It is a waste of space. If somebody has got intelligence and some skills and Some sort of qualifications. I would have taken anything, and this was only a couple of years ago, but there was no interest in me as a worker". The dominant emotion was frustration that people feel after they go through a seemingly endless cycle of meetings with Job Network employment consultants, customer service officers and various Job Training programs with no tangible outcome: from a man in his 30s "You really don't feel like you have too many options or control over your job hunting. You are feeling like you are spending a lot of time and a lot of money wasting time for very little rewards". While self-efficacy theory and research suggests that external rewards (read employment outcomes) and a sense of control are critically important, the development of intrinsic motivation requires a perception that one's actions are self-determined and that these actions will lead to tangible benefits (Palardy, 1999). While there appears to be a lot of activity in Australia's workfare programs, much of this activity appears to be directed by external actors and agencies and often has no reward in the form of a job.

The longer the person is unemployed the more intensive their activities become, but only after certain milestones have been reached (such as being unemployed for more than 6 months). In designing the system the level of financial assistance for the unemployed person is weighted not in terms of early intervention, but as the period of unemployment increases. This design feature contradicts labour market research that suggests early intervention is important; especially when one considers the well documented fact that the longer the person is unemployed the less likely they are to rejoin the workforce (ABS, 2006). This apparent lack of logic was apparent in our respondents. One, a man who was made redundant in his mid 40s, commented in his final interview that: "By the time the consultants meet these people, they have been in the system for 3-6 months. To me you should see this person in the beginning, not wait 3-6 months till they are despondent about the whole mess they are in".

Since 2003 every 'job seeker' who signs on for Newstart, who is defined as able to work, is immediately referred to a Job Network provider and they then pass through a sequence of services and episodes of 'mutual obligation', until they come off benefits. The problem with the long-term unemployed person in the system is that once they have reached a certain stage they can end up being recycled through multiple episodes of 'intensive assistance', which under the new 2006 welfare-to-work rules, can now involve full-time work for the dole until the person leaves unemployment benefits. After periods off allowance these job seekers are treated, when they reapply, as if they have just registered for the first time. The following quote--from a young unemployed person at her first interview, who had been unemployed for just over six months--illustrates well how research participants described the process of being recycled: "I was given a case manager and instead of listening to what I wanted I spent more time listening to what they expected of me. I was told by an independent source that I had to be on unemployment for six months, then get given a work for the dole, then wait another six months, then do another work for the dole. Within a month I was on a work for the dole".

The comment reveals a sense of how 'mutual obligation' was experienced by those that have been in the system for a long-time. Mutual obligation and its contractual requirements felt like a decidedly one-way street that provides a limited range of options. It is in this context of churning between temporary employment and the Job Network office that we see the lived consequences of the underlying 'one size fits all' activation model as it affects individual job seekers. People are offered generic courses, irrespective of whether they already have those skills. Again, this does little to reinforce a sense of efficacy--of being in control. Instead of enhancing self efficacy these programs can have a corrosive effect on self-control precisely because they reduce the capacity for autonomy.

People's actions are directed through a highly prescriptive and limited range of 'activation' options for the diverse needs of the long-term unemployed. In this environment it is difficult to see how long-term unemployed people are going to be transformed into responsible and active citizens. The following quote from the fist interview with a woman in her early 50s is illustrative of a dominant theme in people's descriptions of their cumulative encounters with the Australian workfare state: "It is really quite impersonal I think. You bounce from the Centrelink to the Job Network providers and they are both just a system that is quite impersonal. You jump through hoops without too much input from yourself". The promise of individualised service delivery and choice promoted as a system design feature when the Network was first set up is not being borne out in practice for this particular cohort of 'job seekers'.

An indifferent labour market and a de-personalised experience of employment services can have a double-impact on motivation and esteem: "If you go for 100 interviews and get knocked back it really throws your self esteem through the floor. I have self esteem problems because of everything I have been through so I have always had a problem of the idea of going for interviews. At the same time I have done a lot of courses but a not a lot of work to go with it". This extract from a woman in her 30s succinctly demonstrates how continual 'knock backs' in a competitive labour market, combined with lack of control, erode self-confidence and motivation. In regard to self-efficacy, Ryan and Deci (2000: 58) note that "directives and competition pressure diminish intrinsic motivation because people experience them as controllers of their behaviour [while] choice and the opportunity for self-direction appear to enhance intrinsic motivation, as they afford a greater sense of autonomy".

The impact of being subjected to relentless and tightly controlled processes without tangible outcomes contributed to feelings of anger, hopelessness and humiliation among our respondents. The following quote from a young unemployed single woman in her mid 30s encapsulates the way in which the majority of the respondents felt about being subjected to constant labour market rejection and prescriptive job search activities: "Largely it has been frustrating and negative, a lot of it you put in the past, you just want to forget it. It can be patronising, degrading and a bit of a joke". One person, a man in his 50s in his last conversation with us had given up all hope and was counting his time until he was referred to another program: "I think for me it will be indefinite. I will be here until they find some way to exit me out". What is also conveyed in this account is a loss of hope and self-respect. In many ways, these sorts of reflections are not surprising. As Barbara Ehrenreich (2001: 35) wrote in her account of life combining work and welfare in the US: "If you are constantly reminded of your position in the social hierarchy, whether by individual managers or by a plethora of impersonal rules you begin to accept that unfortunate status". And in his book on the ethic of respect, Richard Sennett (2003) notes that one of the legacies of almost a decade of paternalistic and punitive 'welfare reform' in the United States is that citizens have been infantilised and rendered spectators to meeting their own needs.

The psychological toll of engagement with workfare--Australian style--provokes a range of responses. While the majority of people in our sample expressed variations of despair, some of the people were more defiant. One middle-aged woman, who felt she was the subject of labour market discrimination based on her ethnicity, expressed her cynicism about all levels of the system: "I am utterly cynical about the agenda, the governments agenda, the agenda of the agencies, their capacity to actually render assistance. I don't take any of it seriously. I am intelligent and astute and I know how to play the game so that is what I do". This individual was the most highly educated of the sample, having graduated with a Masters degree in international relations three years earlier. Despite this achievement, the only work she had received since graduating was casual work in the retail sector--hence her feeling of being discriminated against in the labour market.

The importance of a 'good' employment consultant

There were a minority of people in our sample (less than 10%) who were more positive about their experience of employment services and the role it has played in improving their motivation and prospects of employment. These positive comments were very clearly focused on the quality of the relationship with individual employment consultants. The value of these relationships did not, however, overcome the systemic issues discussed above but they did have an impact on how people feel about fulfilling their contractual obligations and activity requirements. The employment consultant is the face of the Job Network, the person that explains and interprets the policies and programs available. According to our respondents a 'good' employment consultant was someone who listened to people's aspirations, was not too pushy, was knowledgeable about the labour market and practiced respect in the way in which they spoke and interacted with the 'job seeker'. From a man in his 20s at his second interview: "I have been very lucky. My personal case manager that I have had, she has been a lot more together in trying to get me work in my area rather than have to push me into just anything. Importantly, these qualities developed over time and were a feature of continuity in the case management relationship.

In the context of high staff turnover (McDonald and Marston, 2006) the opportunity for 'good' case management to develop was, for our respondents, a diminishing resource at the front line of welfare-to-work. "One of my gripes with these kinds of places is that people seem to filter in and out of them pretty quickly. Not many people seem to hang around for a long time. You can have a new consultant very often". It is notable that these more positive portrayals, in this case from a man in his late thirties at the second interview, were recounted during our first and second interview and in most cases these particular case managers were not employed by the agency in question at the time of our third and final research interview.

Unlike the policy makers and conservative social policy theorists, most of our long-term unemployed respondents do not make the distinction between 'hassle' (sanctions) and 'help' (employment services). They do not see sanctions as hassle and services as help in the way that Lawrence Mead might have imagined. For them the employment services end of the system is part and parcel of the compulsion, coercion and compliance regime. In large part, we can interpret this as resulting from the fact that the services provided have not translated into an employment outcome for these individuals, but it is also because the employment consultant in the Job Network has a dual role to play. Employment consultants have a contractual obligation to notify the government if someone fails to comply with their activity requirements at the same time they are meant to perform a semi-pastoral role guiding the person to an achievable employment outcome. In other words, the employment consultants are simultaneously an agent of the state and of the client (Maynard-Moody and Musheno, 2063). The parties to the employment services contract have come together because they are required to do so; they are not in this relationship because the unemployed person believes that the employment service will offer them the assistance they need. It is important not to underestimate the resentment that this underlying compulsion generated, as the following quote from an older unemployed person about the threat of sanctions makes very clear: "You shouldn't tell people they have to go in there, it gives people a general distaste for walking into the place and they know that if they don't get along with this young person she is going to rip them off 17% of their payments. It could stop a lot of people looking for work. That is $60 out of $300, it is a big chunk".

Without genuine incentives or genuine jobs the only extrinsic motivation left for the long-term unemployed is the financial sanction, the fact that they will lose part or all of their benefit if they stop going through the motions of endless appointments and job search training courses. Looked at in terms of what has been learnt about self efficacy, the emphasis on sanctions undermines internal motivation and self-regulation (Ryan and Deci, 2000) and are counter-productive. In the words of one of our respondents, a middle aged woman: "I wouldn't pressure people as much as they do. You have to pressure people a little bit and get them to a few interviews but I reckon it is a bit of overkill at the moment". The 'pressure' referred to here also raises critical questions about the deleterious health effects of compulsion and coercion, particularly for the high percentage of long-term unemployed people who suffer from high prevalence mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression (Butterworth et al, 2006). The sense of being pressured is real for both employment consultants and the long-term unemployed and is a reflection of the policy environment and the financial pressures that drive the Job Network providers to maintain their viability in a market model of service delivery. Competition and the financial incentives between providers mean that the system has come to be dominated by the financial imperatives of providers, rather than the needs of service users (Thomas, 2007; Quinlan, 2006).

The people we interviewed were very aware that their unemployed status had a commodity value in a 'market welfare' system that relies on business calculations and performance criteria to determine which individual cases are likely to deliver a return, and conversely, which clients offer a diminished prospect of an outcome payment from the government. These expectations mean that there can be clash between the needs of the long-term unemployed person and the financial rewards offered to providers by the system:

"When it (the Job Network) was first Set up they take our skills and match us up for work. That is not what is happening now, they are just a machine. They are getting thousands of dollars for each of us and that money would be better spent in other ways. We haven't had an increase in our social security payments, nothing serious at least for 5-10 years." (Man in his 40s)

"They just don't have my interest at all. Yet these guys are supposed to be really bending over backwards, intensive assistance implies that. But my feelings are that it's just not real at all. They're there to take the money that Centrelink hands out for job seekers and do the least possible they can to get that." (Woman in her late 20s)

This reflection supports other research into the experience of the new compliance regime for long-term unemployed people, where administrative processing and 'activity' becomes an end in itself (Ziguras et al, 2000). While the rhetoric of the market model of employment services espouses individual service, for the most part it is experienced as a model that 'radiates indifference' (Sennett, 2007) towards the plight of the long-term unemployed. In the competing rationalities of human service professionalism and bureaucratic processing it is the demands of the organisational-bureaucratic model that appears to be winning out in driving the direction of reform. From the perspective of the people we spoke with, these processes did not improve the self-esteem, self-control and motivation and were, as suggested previously, counter-productive. In general, people are churned through what is experienced as an indifferent system, with 'personalised service' being the exception, rather than the norm.

Despite the notable exceptions of good practice at the coalface, what emerges most profoundly in these reflections is how ill equipped the employment services system is in providing the sorts of interventions necessary to genuinely assist the long-term unemployed to improve their self-efficacy and their chances of gaining sustainable employment. At the time of our third interview only eight of the respondents were working or had worked in the past six months. Only one of those people who had obtained work was working in an ongoing full-time job. The other positions were casual and or temporary. In large part this outcome reflects the limitations of a model that is geared towards supply side approaches that focus on short-term goals and outcomes. Like all workfare programs, the Job Network system favours short training interventions--like 6-8 week prevocational/job search training programs, rather than long-term investments in literacy, numeracy or meaningful educational qualifications. From the point of view of our respondents, short-term training did not provide the necessary human capital to lever them into the labour market, nor did it provide pathways to better paid, higher skilled jobs. This is reflected in the comments by the research participants that the training they had received had not helped them to increase their skill level or make them more employable: "The fact that you're asked to go through what is very basic training at the start of your involvement with the Job Network member on how to go for a job, how to go to interviews and all of these sort of things. I mean it's laughable for somebody like me who's been doing it that long that you actually know more about the real world than the person who's instructing you" (Woman in her early 50s).

At the level of the organization these policy dilemmas and competing explanatory theories create a range of unintended consequences and potential challenges. The conflicting values that drive Australia's employment services system: profit, performance and competition on the one hand, and normative human service goals of ethical practice, care and trust on the other hand are not easily reconciled in practice. Arguably, there can be no trust between provider and service user when people feel they are a commodity that is churned through different case managers, casual jobs and compulsory courses. And there can be little self-efficacy cultivated in a system where the unemployed have limited voice, control and autonomy over how they engage with training, education and the labour market. One of the respondents, a woman in her late 30s, summarises both of these points in one telling remark in response to a question about how they felt about moving from one employment agency to the next: "Very depressing. Every time you got to know them and they wanted to know you, so you had to bring out the past and all that. You had to start over again from scratch. It was so hard and so depressing. Job Networks get paid for getting a job, so the), should try harder".

These insights raise important challenges for policy and practice. Admittedly, what we have presented here reflects the experiences of 75 long-term unemployed people in one national context, but it is nonetheless sufficient enough to warrant further investigation. Above all else, policy-makers and the general public need to be certain that governments are not doing more harm than good in adopting a workfare response to address long-term unemployment. The economic imperative to increase labour force participation rates has redefined the goals of the Australian social security away from poverty alleviation and towards workforce participation and highly conditional citizenship entitlements (Ziguras, 2006). While the economic objective of getting more people into jobs (irrespective of job quality) may be realised through workfare programs (Carney, 2006), the social and individual costs may end up being too high a price to pay.

Conclusion--The Implications of Australia's workfare model

At present (and somewhat perversely), the Job Network refuses to take responsibility for employment outcomes. Job Network providers claim they have a role in facilitating an employment outcome, but they draw the line at taking responsibility to find people a job (Jobs Australia, 2006). Similarly the government claims that long-term unemployed people need to be more responsible for their own welfare, including the challenge of finding employment in a competitive labour market. For Sennett (1998), the psychology is deeply misguided--a sentiment endorsed by the substantial body of theory and empirical research on self efficacy. We are also faced with the uncomfortable fact that many of those that are categorised as long-term unemployed will continue to be financially 'dependent' on the state no matter how unforgiving the policy hassle become. Homelessness, illiteracy and chronic health problems cannot be wished away by pronouncements about the need for greater self-reliance. In light of what people have told us about the experience of workfare programs, the self-efficacy argument for increased compulsion starts to sound very hollow. Further, an increasingly 'work-centred' society has social costs that can only be measured as significant if we acknowledge that the assumption of personal responsibility is unable to explain all injustices and inequalities. At the very least it seems unfair to expect individuals to resolve what the state refuses to acknowledge. But in the context of workfare policies, this is precisely what occurs everyday. In effect, this is a system problem, embedded in and through the Job Network via policy steeped in a particular orientation to joblessness and dependence. While we acknowledge that this might be experienced differently by a different cohort (for example, short term skilled transitional unemployed people), our interviewees told us clearly that it impacts negatively on them.

Highlighting the psychological toll that accompanies workfare policies does not necessarily discount the importance of psychology to understanding the dynamics of the transition between unemployment and paid employment. What it does do is highlight how easy it is to confuse consequences with causes. As such, the experiences of this cohort suggest we would do well to tread more carefully rather than implementing blunt policy instruments that make negative assumptions about the long-term unemployed. And for this cohort, the government's approach to the issue of long-term unemployment seemed to be doing more harm than good in terms of the very psychological state that it wishes to induce. It is certainly the case that the majority of the people we spoke with did not feel motivated, in control and autonomous as a result of their engagement with the Job Network model.

Our work, partially reported here, represents a small ethnographically informed exploration of what it is like to live the life of long term unemployment. In this instance we have drawn out from the corpus comments which illustrate the impact their involvement has on their self efficacy and motivation. We do not claim to speak for other groups with different experiences. Nevertheless, while we do not seek (and indeed cannot) generalize, the experiences 75 people from three parts of the country is instructive, particularly in that is demonstrates that we can understand employment services and the associated policy regime from a different perspective. It is to this interpretative level of policy that (at least some of) our attention must be directed, particularly if we wish to assess all the costs and benefits of welfare-to-work policies. Most importantly, we need to listen to the voices of those that are forced to engage with a policy model that, from their perspectives, appears to be failing in both psychological and material terms.


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Author:Marston, Greg; McDonald, Catherine
Publication:Australian Journal of Social Issues
Article Type:Author abstract
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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