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I came across the CREATE consortium's Community Allowance proposal recently. The idea is to make it easier for people who are dependent on benefits to carry out work that needs doing in the community, or to be able to declare and be recognised for work they already do. Examples of such work include: care for elderly friends, relatives and neighbours; childcare; odd jobs; cleaning up parks and streets; caretaker job;, lollipop ladies (and gents); and working for local charities. Community Allowance does several things:

I came across the CREATE consortium's Community Allowance proposal recently. The idea is to make it easier for people who are dependent on benefits to carry out work that needs doing in the community, or to be able to declare and be recognised for work they already do. Examples of such work include: care for elderly friends, relatives and neighbours; childcare; odd jobs; cleaning up parks and streets; caretaker job;, lollipop ladies (and gents); and working for local charities. Community Allowance does several things:

It takes day-to-day welfare claim-management out of the hands of the claimant, freeing him or her to spend energies on finding and doing locally-based work. Claimants' housing benefits are guaranteed and income support cannot be suddenly removed. Rather, a trusted third-sector organisation already working in the community takes on the responsibility of channelling work the claimant's way, and recording how much work  he or she does. This organisation takes care of liaising with benefits agencies. What the claimant gets is the opportunity to be a little better off through doing some work, and to improve his or her community (all work he or she can do under the scheme must be of some benefit to the local community). But perhaps most important, he or she can simply get used to working - building up confidence or perhaps just the idea that the claimant is someone who can work.

What a brilliant idea! One obstacle to long-term claimants finding work is the risk they run in losing substantial benefits, losses that could leave them homeless. For the marginal income-gains they would get from low-paid work such risks will appear too great and employment may actually be eschewed. This is a perfectly rational decision many of us would make in the same situation.

Another problem is that maintaining a benefits claim often becomes an esteem-destroying game where both claimant and Jobcentre staff know they are just ticking boxes. This is a degrading and disheartening experience that 'institutionalises' claimants and officials alike. It breeds cynicism and hopelessness. What's more, the system is designed so that it harasses people into finding work (so-called 'conditionality'). But in fact, respite from bureaucratic harassment might be more beneficial, allowing claimants to actually do some work.

This policy idea fits with our Social Brain research. On the one hand it would work through individual rational choices - it makes it rational for claimants to undertake work because they feel financially secure. On the other hand, it gives claimants the opportunity to experience working environments - that is, it allows them simply to get used to 'the feel' of work, building habits through behaviours, so that changed attitudes might follow. This is the right way to do things: too much policy works on the myth that people change their behaviour after assessing information and changing attitudes first. In fact, often it is attitudes that follow behaviour.

Finally, the Community Allowance builds up people's stakes in where they live - making a connection between work and community benefit, as well as building positive and valuable social relationships. Of course, like any initiative of this sort there will be hitches and abuses. But we already spend the money on benefits and it's not as if the present system is free from abuse. Better, surely, to encounter problems trying to do something positive for claimants and the communities in which they live?

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