Six years ago the BBC brought me from Texas to Wales. Westminster was considering sweeping welfare reforms, which the U.S. had done in the 1990s. I recently returned to find out what’s happened since.
What stands out is that very little has changed, despite government efforts to reform the welfare system. Long-term unemployment remains chronic (especially amongst the young) in some areas, and the current benefits structure may be causing more problems than it solves.
Take Paul Peck. When I first met Paul, a very likeable disabled man, he had been on benefits for years - and still is. Even with his disability, Paul could do certain sit-down jobs. But his benefits let him eek out a minimally comfortable existence.
Merrill Matthews at Gurnos Fish Bar
Out filming, we came across groups of teenagers, mostly boys. They were nice enough, but boys hanging around with boys all the time, unguided, with nothing to do and little ambition is a recipe for future failure. When I asked the manager of the Gurnos Fish Bar why all his staff were female, he told me that in three years of running the place only two men had ever applied for a job.
Government welfare systems should be a temporary safety net. The food bank we visited was exactly that. It minimizes potential abuse by requiring a voucher confirming financial hardship.
By contrast, an easily accessed safety net with no work requirement can become a hammock - or a spider's web that entraps people. When people have gone for years without a job - as is the case for too many in Wales - they become almost unemployable, and they begin to think the government (ie taxpayers) owes them a living.
Merrill visits a food bank in Cardiff
That's why the fundamental principle behind all welfare benefits is that recipients, with only a few exceptions, must work to receive those benefits. A work requirement - not just checking a computer or going to a job center - is the best way to encourage those who can find a job on their own to do so, allowing caseworkers to focus on the more difficult cases.
I did find one work program that seems to be successful: Jobs Growth Wales. It's a win-win for employers and the young unemployed. The employer gets a worker whose wages are reimbursed by the Welsh government for six months and the youngster gets work experience and maybe a job at the end of it. I don’t know why the Conservative Party ended a similar scheme that covered England too.
Merrill on a bus
Finally, at times, I found myself asking, 'Would I hire this person to work for me?'. The answer was often no; the learning curve was just too steep. It appears that many of these teens and young adults are leaving school unprepared for work - or life. But given the current welfare system it's hard to see how the job market, or the hopelessness many in poverty feel, will change.
Week In Week Out is on Tuesday 27 May, BBC One Wales at 10.35pm.