There's a lot of controversy about the nature of welfare for the unemployed. Should it exist, how much should be given and whether it is applied in the right manner are all hotly contested issues.

Those who won't work need motivating, of course. I'm not so far to the left that I dispute that. Those who refuse to attend job interviews or compulsory work schemes -planting bulbs on traffic islands, for example- should have their benefits withdrawn. However, this variety of idle bastard is not in the majority. Those who deny that the other sort exist at all need educating in how industrial society works.

Basically, market forces dictate how many jobs there are. If there is a recession (Britain in the early 1980s is a good example) then there aren't as many jobs to be had. Young people won't be able to find work as they leave school, and those already employed may well be laid off. This is not their fault; sometimes it isn't anybody's fault. In these circumstances government training schemes can be of limited help, since skilled workers are as vulnerable to this as anybody else. More people are out of work for lack of job vacancies than lack of qualifications at the best of times.

Let us take the example of a small town that has largely grown up around a single industry. A shipyard, a factory, a mine; it's not really important what it is. If it closes, then thousands can be put out of work. There is a domino effect- people have less spending power, so small businesses and retail outlets close, creating even more unemployment. Often this is because of an Act of God/Allah/Brahmin/crappy luck, so nobody is to blame, least of all the unemployed themselves. They can't always even move elsewhere, because those who have morgages are paying back more than their home is worth, and will lose thousands if they try to sell up.

That people should give some thought to providing for themselves in case of hardship is a reasonable suggestion, and those who can often do. But it's not exactly easy to do when you're trying to bring up a couple of kids on an annual income of less than twenty thousand pounds (about $30k). So it's on the dole people land.

Now, the unemployment benefit rate in this country is about £80 a week for an unmarried person with no children. It's actually a bit below what that person would earn in a normal working week at minimum wage. If they have debts -morgages, loan repayments or whatever- then the interest is paid on top of all that, in order to stave off repossession. I don't know exactly what prices are like right now (you can tell I'm still living at home!), but you won't get fat on the amount that'll buy you. In the mid-80s a Conservative Member of Parliament whose name escapes me took part in a social science field experiment/publicity stunt in which he spent a couple of weeks living in a council flat, with a maximum budget of the unemployment benefit handed out at that time, and he was forced to admit (in a rather dramatic departure from the party line under Thatcher) that it wasn't all cakes and ale.

I might be digressing a little, but I'd like to take a few moments to describe the first time some common anti-welfare arguments were put into practice. To do this we must look back to 1834, the year in which the workhouse system was born.

The revised Poor Law Amendment Act (PLAA to most historians) was a revolution in centralisation, and the very first time that serious control of poor relief was execised by the government. Civil servants wishing to centralise anything should look to the PLAA as a shining example of how not to set about it. Perhaps they can be forgiven because nothing like this had ever been tried before, but the newly appointed Poor Law Commission got more or less everything precisely wrong at the start.

The idea of standardising provision of welfare throughout the country, enforcing the same minimum standards and code of practice where previously the old Overseer of the Poor could do prety much as they pleased, wasn't a bad idea. However, individual areas have individual circumstances to which the locally elected Board of Guardians (the body responsible for day to day operation of an individual workhouse) was in the best position to judge how to respond. The very last thing they needed was a central authority with sweeping executive powers, litle direct accountability to Parliament and a complete disinterest in any opinion but its own. The PLC was given to issuing orders banning perfectly sensible practices that didn't quite fit in with the ethos of deterrence and less eligibility.

However, the PLC more or less compensated by theoretically mandating biannual inspections of every workhouse (not far short of 200 of them), but appointing a grand total of nine people to do this. This meant that the Boards of Guardians were able to bend the rules a litle should the occasion warrant.

The workhouses themselves were designed to be lees pleasant than even the worst living conditions outside them. It was assumed that unemployment was caused by idleness, drunkenness and the knowledge that the parish would look after them if they didn't work. For such individuals (once again, I know perfectly well that they exist) exposure to the new alternative to a day's work was something of a learning experience. However, the deterrence factor was sufficient that many people chose starvation over the dreaded 'Poor Law Bastille'; not exactly the idea behind the PLAA.

However, not long after the system was put in place there was a series of periodic trade depressions. Some were short or relatively localised to a few trades, but others were all-encompassing. It came as something of a rude shock to the originators of the idea that people were qeueing around the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) building to get into the workhouse, and having to be turned away because there was no more room.

Then as now, people were often unemployed due to factors beyond their control, indeed often beyond anybody's control. Job security is better now, but remember; the next time the firm's profits are down some, it might be YOU who gets laid off. When you next see a guy on the dole, remember that there but for the grace of God goes everybody in the country.