Skip to main content
Media centre

The ‘welfare scrounger’ is exposed as myth by new report

13 December 2012


The idea that children, parents and grandparents live a life on benefits in workless families is revealed to be untrue in a new report published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The report, called Are ‘Cultures of Worklessness’ passed down the generations?, examined whether there really are ‘three generations of families who have never worked’ and whether unemployment in families could be explained by a ‘culture of worklessness’ – by people’s attitudes and behaviour.

Professors Robert MacDonald, Tracy Shildrick, from Teesside University and Andy Furlong, from Glasgow University, together with researchers Johann Roden and Robert Crow, carried out intensive fieldwork with families in Middlesbrough and Glasgow but were unable to find families with three generations in which no-one had ever worked.

Workless parents were keen for their children to do better than they had, and actively tried to help them find jobs. The working-age children of these families remained strongly committed to conventional values about work as part of a normal transition to adulthood. They were keen to avoid the poverty, worklessness and other problems experienced by their parents.

Professor Rob MacDonald explained: 'Even two generations of complete worklessness in the same family is a very rare phenomenon. We found that families experiencing long-term unemployment remained committed to the value of the work and preferred to be in jobs rather than on benefits.'

Professor Tracy Shildrick added: 'There was no evidence of a culture of worklessness; no evidence people didn’t want to work and were happy to be dependent on welfare. In fact, workless parents were keen that their children do better than they had and actively helped them to find jobs.'

The key conclusion of the study is that policy makers should abandon theories of ‘cultures of worklessness’ and the policies that flow from them (which include breaking a perceived ‘culture of worklessness’ by reforming benefit systems). Instead they should –concentrate on policies that provide long term, secure jobs with good pay and benefits to help people move away from poverty.

Patrick Richards, 49, from Middlesbrough, took part in the research. He had had jobs earlier in his life but had lost these because of problems with his health. He said that employment “gives your whole day some sort of order. It’s like a regimental thing…whereas if you are just sat around it can be frustrating and awful, really.”

Pamela Fraser, 21, from Glasgow, had been out of work for two years. Like the younger people in the study, she longed for a job: 'I’ve always wanted to be able to say to somebody, ‘I work here’, ‘I’m going to my work’.'

Professor Furlong said: 'Younger and older interviewees described their daily struggle. Socialising is severely restricted and the absence of holidays, even day trips, is emblematic of lives lived in poverty. Because of multiple problems faced, many in the middle generation are resigned to their long-term worklessness but, as parents, they are unanimous in wanting their children to be able to get work.'

Roy Cunningham, 50, from Middlesbrough had been out of work for several years because of a serious disability. His children were struggling to find employment. He said: 'What I want is for my family to have jobs. They’re not asking for anything big, they are not being greedy.'

Professor Shildrick explained: 'Better paid and more lasting jobs – and a welfare system that promises social security not greater insecurity – would have done much to improve our interviewees’ lives.'

Professor MacDonald concluded: 'Exposing the myth of the ‘welfare scrounger’ is the first step towards better informed debate and policy.'

Professors MacDonald and Shildrick's thoughts were published on the Guardian website

Extensive comment by Professors Robert MacDonald and Tracy Shildrick