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What is the Dole?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Someone who is said to be “on the dole” is a person who is unemployed and therefore entitled to certain benefits. This term originates in the United Kingdom, where it is often used specifically to refer to the Jobseeker's Allowance, a form of welfare which is offered to unemployed individuals who are seeking jobs. It can also refer more generally to charity and government-funded welfare programs; most nations have some form of the dole, out of a desire to ensure that the populace stays reasonably healthy and happy.

This term originated in the First World War, with the first written instance of “the dole” appearing in 1919. The term refers to the idea of doling out charity in the form of food, blankets, supplies, and of course funds. Funding for the dole is provided through a variety of sources, depending on the source of the charity. Charitable organizations rely on funding from the public and various grants, for example, while the government generally uses taxes and other forms of government income to fund its welfare programs, doling out funds on the basis of the cost of living and the situation.

Attitudes about the dole vary. In some regions, people who live on government funding are viewed negatively, even if they are only forced to resort to the dole for a short period of time. In other instances, people recognize that sometimes circumstances are beyond individual control, forcing people to rely on government assistance in some situations. For example, people can lose their jobs quite suddenly due to company bankruptcy or an abrupt reorganization of a company, and it may take them some time to find new employment, especially in a depressed economy.

In order to qualify for the dole, people must generally demonstrate that they are genuinely unemployed, and in many areas they may be required to show active effort in looking for a new job. It is common for government benefits to be denied to people who have been fired for negligence or poor job performance, with benefits being reserved for people who have been unemployed through no fault of their own.

Once someone is on the dole, it can be easier to become eligible for other benefits, such as food stamps, childcare assistance, and so forth. In regions of the world which lack universal healthcare, government-funded healthcare programs for the needy may be open to people on the dole, with social workers advising people about the benefits they can and should apply for.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By angelBraids — On Jul 10, 2011

In some countries people who lose their job get benefits linked to their previous pay scale. I think that's a great idea, as those who earned more probably have a higher standard of living to maintain.

By icecream17 — On Jul 09, 2011

@Cafe41 - I heard about many of those welfare reform measures that took place during the Clinton Presidency. It is true that it put a lot of people back to work.

I also wanted to add that being on the dole can also mean that a family member is supporting you. For example, my sister in law who is college educated and in her thirties is still being supported by her father. She is on the dole because he pays her bills and I think that because of her dependency on him, she is not as responsible as she could be.

She recently quit her job because she had a verbal disagreement with her boss. It is sort of crazy when you think about it. Who does that? She says she is looking for a job and just the other day asked her father to buy her a million dollar apartment. I think that sometimes when a person is on the dole either through the government or as a result of a family member’s help, it can take away your initiative to work like it did for my sister in law.

I know that if she was not on the dole with respect to her father, she would have shown more restrain with her boss and still would have been employed today.

By cafe41 — On Jul 09, 2011

@Sneakers41 - I agree that government entitlement programs are good to give people a hand, but it can also make them feel dependent on the government which is something I am sure most people don’t want to feel.

I remember years ago when Rudy Giuliani was Mayor of New York City, they did a welfare to work program that was really effective. The people that were enrolled in a welfare program were given a two year time limit in order to wean themselves off of welfare, and it return the city trained them for jobs that were readily available in the community. It worked really well and the participants were happy because they had paying jobs and the city also saved some money in the process.

By sneakers41 — On Jul 08, 2011

@Sunny27 - I agree that being on the dole helps a lot of people. I know that I read the other day that they have a record number of Americans on Food Stamps than ever before, and the applications for subsidized housing is at an all time high.

It is great that these programs exist, but there can also be a downside to being on the dole. If you get used to the benefits, it could make it really hard to wean yourself off of them. For example, if someone lives in government housing and pays about $150 a month in rent when the market value for similar rental apartments is $750, it can be hard to get out of government housing because you will have to make that much more to live in a better neighbor and the difference might seem a little high.

Many people only want to be in government housing until they get on their feet, but often they stay a lot longer and some families stay for generations because it is not easy to get out of. These people that do get out often do have to work two jobs or go to college and sometimes that is not feasible if you are a single mother with children.

By MissMuffet — On Jul 07, 2011

@Valencia - As a case worker for a charitable organization I come across cases like your grandson's most weeks. I can understand your points, and agree that there is indeed a risk of hostility towards the unemployed.

What many people don't think about though is the major effect of long term unemplyment on families. Children brought uo on benefits miss out on many aspects of life which are pretty standard for employed families.

They have different diets, no vacations, limited access to after school activities and so on. To top it all they may do worse at school and miss out on extending their education. This creates a cycle of poverty which is quite heart breaking.

Pressure to conform within a society which puts a lot of emphasis on material goods leaves many parents depressed and frustrated.

While I'm not suggesting that the unemployed should have access to unlimited funds, there has to be some change on the horizon to address the reality of life without a decent income.

It seems to me that being on the dole is pretty much a career option these days, possibly the only one open to many youngsters who have known nothing else. Wouldn't it make sense to treat it as such?

By Sunny27 — On Jul 07, 2011

I think that there are some people that are on the dole for legitimate reasons. In this economy, many people are out of work so it is not unreasonable that some people may need help finding a job especially when the unemployment rates reaching 10%.

When there is a poor economy many people cut back on personnel and lay off workers. Some people do get severance pay, but others don’t so it can be particularly hard for those people that don’t get a severance check and have little to no savings and are living pay check to pay check.

Many of these people would like to find work, but not many companies are hiring right now so any governmental assistance goes a long way. I know that many communities offer unemployment benefits for up to six months and many more have extended these benefits to last almost one hundred weeks.

It is really no fun being unemployed, and I am sure that the people on the dole are grateful for the help.

By Valencia — On Jul 06, 2011

@Penzance356 - I think the entire system seems to have swung full circle. I too remember the old style dole offices from the 1970s, they weren't places you wanted to hang around in.

I think a lot of the bad attitudes to unemployed people at that time came about because the global recession was just starting. before that, only the feckless would have been trying to get dole money.

Once the economy dived the unemployed became 'clients' and got a lot more respect. I certainly had a lot of help and support when I had a period of unemployment. These days it seems to be back to blaming the individual.

My grandson is a university graduate but struggling to find full time work. Despite his efforts he is being made to feel like a sponger, and threatened with the loss of all benefits if nothing changes. He has had to put his plans to get married on hold and split from his partner and their child to ensure they are not penalised.

I don't know what the answers are, but there should be some way to differentiate between those who are genuinely in need, and the people who have no intention of getting a job anytime soon.

By Penzance356 — On Jul 06, 2011

I remember going with my older sister to the dole office when she left school and was unable to find work. It seemed like such a dark, depressing place and I hoped that I would never have to go there myself at any point.

Being a young job seeker in the late 1970s meant the odds were stacked against me, and after a six month job training scheme I too had to go and 'sign on' as we called it.

Luckily they had moved to a new location and efforts were made to modernise the experience. I'm not sorry that these days there is slightly less stigma to the experience.

Considering you can only get Jobseekers Allowance if you have been in work for a certain period of time, there shouldn't be any shame in getting a little help while you look for something else.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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