How 'Facebook welfare' could reshape the benefits system

Putting social relationships, rather than the impersonal state, at the heart of the welfare system offers a route out of the negative debate about ‘scroungers’.

Generous benefits stop people working. That view, crudely put, is at the centre of the political debate about contributory welfare and benefit ‘scroungers’. It also explains why financial support for unemployed people in the UK is among the most meagre in the developed world. Stingy benefits give people little choice other than to get back to work as quickly as possible: nine in ten unemployed people are back in work within a year.

But for many workers, meagre benefits and tough sanctions create problems. A big drop in living standards during unemployment affords skilled workers no time to find jobs that put their skills to productive use – something that would benefit them, their employer and the taxpayer. It makes little economic sense to push our computer programmers into the nearest retail job just to save the state £71.70 per week in Jobseeker’s Allowance. The trouble is that while higher benefit levels would alleviate this problem, they would compromise work incentives.

There is a way to get the best of both worlds. By 2018, tens of millions of employees will be saving in a private pension thanks to auto-enrolment. That offers an opportunity to build an integrated system of pensions and unemployment savings – one that doesn’t risk diminishing people’s already low rainy-day savings in favour of retirement saving. Let’s call it a lifecycle account.

On hitting unemployment, benefits would automatically be topped-up to 70 per cent of a person’s prior earnings for up to six months, funded from their personal lifecycle account. They would get time to look for the right job, and in spending their own retirement money, jobseekers would have strong incentives to strike the right balance between taking a job today versus a better one tomorrow.

Can this approach tackle the sense that people who’ve not worked enough get “something for nothing” from welfare? Yes, but it will mean putting social relationships – rather than the impersonal state - at the heart of the benefits system.

Account holders would have to nominate three guarantors from their friends or family. They could go into the red while unemployed, giving them a better level of financial support. But their guarantors would be liable to repay a proportion of the money borrowed if their friend failed to find work and repay the cash.

People would be better supported in early unemployment, but in return their closest friends and family would have a direct interest in their work search activities. Harnessing the power of social networks, you might even call it ‘Facebook welfare’.

There is a route out of the negative debate about ‘scroungers’ but it will take a radical rethink of contributory welfare, putting compassionate obligation at the heart of the 21st century welfare state.  

People enter the Jobcentre Plus office in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

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He went in to report on crystal meth – before long, Luke Williams was hooked

The journalist moved into a house of meth addicts to investigate the drug. Within a month, he was using, too.

“I got a story, a very good story,” writes the young Australian journalist Luke Williams in the first chapter of his new book, The Ice Age. “Only it wasn’t the one I was expecting.” For three months in 2014, he lived in a house of crystal meth addicts in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, to investigate the drug. Within a month, he had forgotten why he was there. He had become addicted himself.

What follows is a dizzying retelling of his experiences, which veers between stories of Williams’s psychotic episodes and facts about his drug of choice. His descent into addiction happened in a nondescript house in Pakenham, a suburb to the south-east of Melbourne – “one of the most badly affected meth areas in Australia”.

Williams, now 36, grew up nearby and went to school there. He already knew two meth users in the area well enough to rent a room with them – an out-of-work labourer called Smithy and his live-in ex-girlfriend Beck. It was they who gave Williams his first shot of crystal meth, less than three weeks into his stay.

The crystal form of methamphetamine, also known as “ice”, is an addictive and powerful stimulant that causes euphoria. It heightens alertness, energy and arousal, with comedowns that can lead to aggression and violence.

It has gained cultural significance in recent years because of the US television drama Breaking Bad, in which an otherwise mild-mannered and law-abiding chemistry teacher “cooks” and sells crystal meth. Yet not much is known about the long-term effects of the drug, which in some countries – such as the Czech Republic – is a graver problem than heroin. In the UK, crystal meth activity is low and mainly linked to the gay chemsex party scene, where drugs are used to enhance group sex experiences.


Photo: Scribe

The drug is linked to severe psychosis, which Williams experienced first hand. Detailed in his book in a neat little list, like a morbid twist on a teenage diary, are Williams’s delusions, entitled: “My psychotic ideas”. Some are harrowing. His conviction that his parents are trying to poison him, for example, which results in him threatening to kill them “with my bare f***ing hands”. Others are amusing: he abandons his journalistic endeavour almost immediately in the belief that his calling is to become a famous rap star.

“I think that I could maybe do spoken word, but rapping? No, no,” he chuckles, when he speaks to me via Skype from Nepal, where he is researching another story. He says that he wanted to investigate crystal meth use partly because he was bored. He had left journalism to work at a law firm, and his life “lacked a bit of kick”.

Although he describes himself as “white, middle-class [and] educated”, he was fixated by the characters from his youth on the city’s outskirts. “I missed [them] in the middle-class world; it seemed so polite and clean . . . I looked forward to getting back there, living cheap, and when I saw the state some of my friends were in, I was very curious to know what was going on with them. Nobody was writing about the working class and the underclass.”

Williams quickly shifted from observer to addict. In alarming and frank detail, his book tells of marathon masturbation sessions (his record was 16 hours), physical altercations and a thick fog of paranoia. He would search his name online and become convinced that anything written by, or about, the name “Luke Williams” involved him.

He became so obsessed with the memory of an ex-boyfriend called Nathaniel that he believed that Smithy had turned his ex “into a transsexual, so that he and his mates could have their way with the new female Nathaniel”.

After three months, Williams was kicked out of the house by an aggressive Smithy, who thought the journalist was stealing his cannabis (he wasn’t). The nearby hospital gave him no help, so Williams ended up on the streets. After a lot of persuasion, he eventually returned to safety with his parents. He has been recovering ever since.

There is talk of a crystal meth “epidemic” in rural and suburban areas of Australia, which has among the highest usage of the drug in the world. The number of people using it there tripled from 2011 to 2016, and 7 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 have reported using amphetamines or methamphetamines (in the UK, it’s 1 per cent).

Although Luke Williams’s story is an insight into one of the world’s most dangerous substances, it’s also a lesson in doing your research. The first time Williams took crystal meth, it was injected by one of his housemates and he believed that it was no different from powdered meth – more commonly known as speed – which he had been using occasionally to give him the energy to write.

The group called everything “meth”, regardless of what they were taking. “Our lingo just didn’t differentiate,” Williams tells me. “People don’t really understand the difference. I got the opportunity to say in the public domain that [crystal meth] is different . . . It eats away at your inside.”

The Ice Age: A Journey Into Crystal-Meth Addiction by Luke Williams is published by Scribe.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era