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Adeela Shafi: The welfare state should be reformed so that it is again a stepping stone rather than a landing base

Shafi Adeela Adeela Shafi was Conservative candidate in Bristol East at the general election and is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England.

"We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them" - Albert Einstein

The existence of the Welfare State gives me great comfort.  To know that in days of need I will have a fallback, someone to help me, someone to hold my hand as I get back up again, be it a case of ill-health, unemployment or retirement.  Indeed the welfare state could be said to be one of the main achievements of the post imperialist developed world.

But what is the psychological impact of the welfare state upon the individual and society?  The initial and original effect was a positive one, but over time the system has led to some actual and potentially devastating consequences for the individual and ultimately to society.

Knowing that your basic needs will be met gives you the confidence and esteem to reach your potential.  According to Abraham Maslow’s (1908-1970) theory of human motivation and the Hierarchy of Needs, an individual can only reach his/her true potential if the most basic needs are met.  For example, food, water and shelter and other bodily needs would be a human’s most basic needs.  Once these are met, a human can address the next tier of needs of self esteem, belonging, identity, respect.  Only once all these needs are met can a human strive to realise their full potential and reach the pinnacle which is called Self Actualisation.  This is the point where a human being fulfils their potential, is able to bring out the best in themselves and the point where an individual is comfortable enough with themselves to achieve personal growth with a lesser concern for the opinions of others.  It is these people who often are the forward thinkers, the inventers, the innovators, the mould breakers within their communities.

Whilst perhaps not at the forefront when the welfare state emerged, but no doubt somebody, somewhere must have been aware that by meeting basic survival needs, the country could getting to the state where its workforce were so demoralised that they could not, as an aggregate, progress the country. Hence by meeting the most basic needs of its people, Britain could get back on its feet and continue to enjoy an influential position on the world stage as it had done through its history.

This may be supported by the historical fact in that it is not often you find that individuals from the developing world listed as pioneers of particular types of thinking or innovation.  It could be seen that developing countries are simply more preoccupied with meeting the more basic of human needs of food shelter, safety, belonging, respect, identity – these people live a lifetime trying to achieve these without ever getting near the point of self actualising.  It is more likely that in the Developed World where basic human needs are more attainable that people get closer to reaching their full potential.  The more individuals are able to reach their potential the better it is for that society.  For example, it is unlikely that Alexander Bell (the inventor of the telephone) was worried about where his food was going to come from.  Nor did the Wright brothers (who invented the plane) have to worry too much about whether the crops would harvest.   Only if the more basic needs are met can someone reach those parts of their capabilities that reach levels of innovation and progress.  Otherwise much of the brain’s occupation is with meeting more basic needs, be they physical survival or social belonging.

The creation or rather the culmination of the Welfare State was to be a ‘safety net’ for people.  So that people were not completely destitute, that there was an ‘in between’ to get people back on their feet.  The potential to self actualise would not be diminished.

However, for many the welfare system has eroded the motivation for work.  If your basic needs are met without leaving your hut why should the even the hunter or gatherer have bothered to leave their abode?  Recent analysis shows there are 1.4 million people who have been on out of work benefits for 9 out of 10 years.  By any measure this is not an in between safety net but appears to be a lifestyle.  Britain has the highest number of children living in workless households.  There are 2.5 million people on Incapacity Benefits many of them for years.  There are just under 1million young people not in education employment or training.

In its current state by 2015, welfare benefits will cost the taxpayer £192bn. These costs are enough to reconsider the role of welfare.  But what about the costs to the individual in terms of self esteem, self worth and self value. Not having a job, not being able to contribute, not being able to achieve has severe consequences on an individual’s personality. The cost to the country is not just in monetary terms but in terms of the potential that is being stunted.  How do we know that the person who is long term unemployed and is depressed, inward looking and lacking confidence, could not have been the next Einstein given the right conditions…?

Therefore, the welfare state might be providing in terms of food, shelter etc, but for many on long term benefits, what is being thwarted is one’s own self confidence and self worth.  Carl Rogers (1902-1987) an American humanistic psychologist believed that a person could only self-actualise when they have positive self regard.  Conditions of worth were vital to bringing out the best in an individual.  The current perception of people on benefits is a negative one because they are perceived by others as ‘lazy’ or that their situation is somehow self inflicted.  Being out of work is demoralising and disheartening making it even harder to get a job.  Statistics show that if you have been on benefits for more than 2 years you are more likely to die than come off them.  By making active contributions to society, for example by engaging in community life, the perceptions people have can change which would have a positive effect on the Jobseeker.  It can become a positive cycle.  Policy is able to shape social attitudes as well as the other way round.

The Welfare State must be a stepping stone and not a landing base.  Being rigorous with the Welfare system must not be seen as ruthless and savage, rather it must be seen as an opportunity to help people to aspire to reach their potential.  This is not an idealistic fantasy, rather a realistic opportunity for people to reach out to their true self worth.

Whilst campaigning during the General Election, I often came up against the comment ‘well, the Tories will cut benefits’.

Yes that is right, the Tories will cut benefits for those who continuously refuse work.  Creating conditions where people have to go out and actively seek work creates an uncomfortable state of affairs or a disequilibrium in finances which will prompt somebody into action to restore equilibrium (balance).  To use the work of Jean Piaget (1896-1983), a key influence on cognitive thinking who believed that when we assimilate new information into our existing body of knowledge it is easy as we are not required to make many changes.  However, when we are challenged by new information/data or experiences which do not fit our existing framework, we are forced to take action to restore that balance or equilibrium.  If benefits vs work equal the same money then why bother change what one is doing?  By creating a state of disequilibrium an individual is compelled to go out and seek to restore that balance.  That action might be more proactively seeking work, starting a business or getting on a course, whilst the state helps out by giving you an allowance. Jobseeker’s Allowance. 

Whilst seeking a job, it is quite pertinent to look to expand one’s experiences and widen horizons by working within the community or getting work based experience.    Edward de Bono, one of the key thinkers of our time and pioneer of lateral thinking believed that the mind makes sense of experience based on previous experience thereby reinforcing existing pathways of thinking and behaviour.  Everyday regular thinking and behaviour is a consequence of this and it has its uses in enabling us to do mundane everyday tasks that require no new thinking.

However, it also has its limitations in that an individual does not develop new and novel ways of thinking and the same behaviour is perpetuated.  To cut benefit if someone refuses to take a job that is appropriate to their qualifications and experience is a step in the right direction.  It will create the opportunity to enable people to escape their existing way of thinking and develop new patterns, initially by challenge and eventually by employing these newfound ways of thinking. 

The cognitive behavioural approach is also relevant to the argument in that the longer somebody is out of work, the more they believe they cannot get a job which in turn affects their job seeking behaviour.  It is important to change people’s cognitions in order to change their behaviour.  For example, somebody who thinks they are never going to lose weight then what chance is there of them going on a diet or going to the gym?  Of course given the current financial climate these cognitions are a possibility as people find it more difficult to find work.  Therefore, the role of relevant ‘back to work’   programmes are important in keeping up the morale of people and maintaining a positive outlook for when we properly come out of this deep, dark financial hole. 

Furthermore, there is little doubt that changing the status quo will reveal the actual needs of some of those on long term benefits, where being out of work has been a smokescreen for other underlying, unaddressed issues, such as mental health.  At least it enables the true needs to be identified and tackled appropriately.

Lev Vygotsky, (1896-1934) a Russian psychologist whose work was only published much after his death in the 70s because of its liberating nature, focussed on the belief that education ought to be an opportunity to teach people to think for themselves and reach their full potential.  To enable this Vygotsky proposed the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).  The ZPD is the area within which an individual can be moved from their actual level to the potential level.  This would be done with the help of a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO).  This is the role that should be adopted by the state – to become the MKO, to push people into their ZPD so that they can reach new levels of thinking and therefore doing.

Supporting someone to move, get out of a rut and seek employment in other parts of the country is therefore right.  Supporting people to change their ways of thinking, providing opportunity and avenues of experience is the role of the state. Since the beginning of time, people have moved in search of food, water, shelter, employment.  Why is it so different now?  Just because we have a network of family and friends does that mean we do not move to better ourselves?   Diane Abbott in her article Moving to Find Work is Unrealistic in the Guardian last month refers to the cruel nature of breaking people’s social networks.   But how ‘kind’ is it to allow people to remain in the cycle of welfare dependency and poverty that is perpetuating through generations.  Perhaps it is that network that is holding someone back…perhaps the equilibrium needs to be challenged.  The government needs to support someone who makes a decision to move to find work.

It is no secret that jobs are not as readily available due to the recession, but neither is the current status quo sustainable.  Better to prepare a workforce for when times are better than enter a prosperous era without the skills and aptitude for new levels of thought needed to compete on the world stage.  This in itself could be the catalyst for job creation.

The irony is, for some the welfare state has become a lifetime cradle of financial and psychological dependency.  A trap that is holding them back, encouraging them to stay on these benefits simply because it does not pay for them to go to work. What was meant to be a stepping stone has become a landing base where there are generations of workless households in parts of the country. The psychological impact on individuals and families is plain to see in the statistics.  It is not good for the country, definitely not good for society and even worse for the individual.

To get ourselves out of this recession, to return to a state of economic growth and employment, to create a new sense of opportunity, it is essential to radically reform Britain’s welfare system and return it to its original form – a safety net from cradle to grave.


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