The massed ranks of unemployed people will not provide the country with an army of Big Society volunteers. Instead, if things continue as they are, they will become increasingly isolated, both from the world of work and from their communities.
By Thomas Neumark, Associate Director for the Connected Communities project at the Royal Society of Arts
The fact that 2.46 million people remain out of work is a bigger threat to David Cameron’s vision of building the Big Society than all the cuts in funding to voluntary and community groups combined.
The massed ranks of unemployed people will not provide the country with an army of volunteers. Instead, if things continue as they are, they will become increasingly isolated, both from the world of work and from their communities.
It is a widely held but mistaken assumption that middle class professionals are too busy to volunteer. In fact most volunteering is done by exactly this type of person. Areas with higher deprivation and higher levels of unemployment have far lower levels of volunteering. There are a number of reasons for this but one is the link between unemployment and social isolation.
Unemployment is associated with less volunteering and participation, not with more. As people become unemployed their social networks become thinner, they become less likely to trust their neighbours and less likely to feel that they have any control over the local area. The difference is most striking in women. Our research has found that unemployed women are four times as likely to be isolated within their communities as those who are in work.
In general, we found that people who are unemployed are only half as likely as others to have any connection with people with some sort of ability, responsibility or authority to change things locally. Without a connection to this type of person, they can feel disconnected from their communities. If they feel that something needs to be changed in their neighbourhood they often do not know who to turn to.
Given that the Office of Budgetary Responsibility has forecast that unemployment will still stand at 6.4% in 2015 there is a pressing need to break this link between social isolation and unemployment.
The most promising possibility for breaking this link is the newly announced Work Programme. This programme funds private companies to support the long term unemployed into work. As well as the traditional focus on building confidence and skills, these companies should make efforts to support and build the social networks of the unemployed people that they are paid to help.
At present the contrast between exhortations from government for us to be more involved in our communities and the realities of life for many unemployed people, could not be greater. Unless efforts are made to break the link between social isolation and unemployed, the vision of building a society in which people feel a greater sense of belonging and responsibility for their communities will remain a pipe dream. The danger is not just that all those potential workers do not become volunteers, but that increasingly they are cut off from their communities and the social contacts that help people get back into the world of work.
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