One of our less-heralded bits of social policy is free bus travel for the elderly. I'm not sure how this works in England, but in Scotland the way it works is that people aged 60 and over are given a pass for free travel; when they get on board a bus they show the pass to the driver and are issued a ticket, the cost of which is then charged back to the government. It's a nice simple scheme, one that's cheap to provide (because the state only pays for travel that's actually used), and one that makes a significant difference to the lives of those who use it. Suddenly, older folk have the ability to get out and about, which can serve to encourage them to do so, thus in turn improving their health and well-being. Huzzah!
Okay, here's a crazy idea: expand the exact same scheme to the unemployed.
The idea would work like this: when a person goes to the Job Centre to sign on, they are provided with a pass for free travel, valid for a period of six weeks (actually, six weeks and a day). Six weeks later, if they don't yet have a job, the pass is reissued for the same period again (and repeatedly, until they find a job and so no longer need it). The rest of it works as does the current scheme: they get free travel on the buses, with the companies involved recharging the tickets back to the government.
This has several benefits:
- Firstly, and most obviously, it makes it easier to find and get a job - given the ability to travel freely, a person will be able to look in a wider area for a job, and will be able to travel to interviews without cutting into their very-limited JSA. (This last is especially important if you have several interviews and aren't terribly likely of getting any of them. Paid for by the individual that could quickly rack up the costs.)
- Secondly, it helps to mitigate the cycle of helplessness that the unemployed, and especially the long-term unemployed, can fall into. If you go day after day with no reason to leave the house, that quickly becomes no reason to get up, which means no reason... it can become increasingly hard to break that cycle. But given free travel, that opens up a whole range of free activities that could be enjoyed - you might not have a park/museum/art gallery in walking distance, but I bet you have one that can be reached by bus. (That's obviously a fairly trivial example, but the phenomenon is real. And while this won't break it by itself, it should help.)
- Thirdly, it just makes the whole business of life that bit easier. It's just that much easier to go to the doctor/dentist/supermarket/whatever with access to the bus than it is if you have to go on foot.
- Fourthly, it's a practical help for people rather than just a cash payment. That's actually quite important, as much of our assistance for job seekers tends to be of the form "here's a handout; now go and get on with it". (That's an exaggeration, of course, but it's not without truth.) Sometimes, it's better to just give someone a ladder, rather than giving them the money for one and pointing them at B&Q.
There are, of course, significant problems with the scheme: I have no idea what it would cost; I have no idea whether it would be practical to issue large numbers of short-term passes; and it does nothing for the fact that there are too few jobs out there. (Oh, and there's a problem where a person might get a job just before their pass expires and then not have the money to actually get to that job until they've had their first pay. But that problem actually already exists.)
But, hey: I did say up-front it was a crazy idea.