If re-elected the Tories will abolish Job Seekers Allowance for 18-21 year olds, unless conducting daily community work. These reforms will doubtlessly be derided by Tory opposition as a narrow-minded measure to engage young people with work. However, these planned reforms also highlight the lowly status community work is granted in our society, in which just 1 in 6 adults are currently engaged in community work.
Community work is seen as punishment
David Cameron’s speech, made in East Sussex last Tuesday, was quick to make the distinction between community work and ‘real’ work. By having “to do community work to receive those benefits” and “conduct daily community work as well as searching for work,” Cameron both de-values community work and drives a wedge between it and paid employment.
This mandatory community work is not pitched to young people as a valued task which will receive a set wage; rather a requisite punishment to afford the privilege of benefits.
Even if Cameron is given the benefit of the doubt that Youth Allowance is a form of wage for community work, the low monetary value awarded, £57.35 for 30 hours work, indicates the value the Tories would assign to such work. This meagre sum, amounting to £1.91 an hour, is clearly what care of the elderly and the upkeep of local parks is worth in Cameron’s Britain.
The plight of community work is that it, wrongly, has few skills associated with it. Volunteering for non-profit organizations is typically more synonymous with ‘kindness’ rather than the possession of valued and transferable skills such as a high emotional intelligence and communication skills.
Cameron’s defence that his reforms will benefit young people preparing them for work only goes as far as teaching them ‘the order and discipline of showing up to work each day.’ Really? Is that all that the opportunity of community work can bestow on its participants, ‘order and discipline’? In reality, voluntary work helps develop a plethora of new skills that will enhance both personal and professional development.
Conversely, Cameron’s rhetoric downgrades community work to a punitive measure; even the notion of ‘mandatory community work’ evokes a thankless task that no sane individual would ever voluntarily subject themselves to.
The final nail in the Big Society’s coffin
By de-valuing community work to a £1.91 an hour skill, which unwilling teenagers must be coerced into, Cameron’s ideological ‘Big Society’ falls even further from grace than anyone thought possible. The Tories’ commitment to neo-liberal economic policy was always going to muscle out social enterprises, in which citizens will do what’s best for the community. A government that has enabled the amassing fortunes for the few while imposing austerity on the masses was unlikely to transform those masses into an army of bright-eyed volunteers, spending their Thursday evenings at care homes, and Saturday mornings at fundraisers for a local homeless shelter.
Given that contributions of voluntary and community work are excluded from GDP measurements, personal well-being and equality become non-existent factors in the way that success is measured in society. The denial of community work as adding value will inevitably exist while we continue along our path of neo-liberal orthodoxy, in which the amassing of private capital inhibits the progression of an equal and compassionate society.
The failure of the ‘Big Society’ has taught us that a ‘hands off’ approach will never adequately create the kind of society that Cameron proposed in 2010. Funding and exposure would just be a partial solution, but what is also needed is a paradigm shift away from measuring success in terms of individual wealth over social equality.
To achieve this, a whole new narrative is required which will have to start from the top down. Not until a government is elected that is committed to the redistribution of wealth and challenges neo-liberal norms, can the conditions be nurtured to fix our fractured society. In such an inclusive society, community work would be lauded for developing real life skills rather than Cameron’s ‘order and discipline.’
No longer would would community work be subjected onto the vulnerable in a coercive fashion, but readily performed and appreciated for the value it brings.
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