Welfare conditionality in Ireland: evidence from longitudinal interviews

February 21, 2017     Leave a Comment

Tom Boland and Ray Griffin from Waterford Institute of Technology have conducted interviews before, during and after the roll-out of activation policies in Ireland. Their study reveals how policy works out in practice, beyond what is measurable statistically.

Our 2012 tranche of interviews confirmed international research on unemployment as a negative experience, leading to financial troubles, social isolation and challenges to mental well-being. Strong work-orientations and extensive job-search activity were also in evidence. Minor elements of suspicion and distrust between claimants and welfare officers were reported, particularly among younger, male and urban jobseekers. In the main the experience of unemployment was narrated as the internalisation of market failure- so typically people felt they lost their jobs because of the recession, but were they to have been better positioned, they might not have become unemployed.

Beyond the financial hardship of losing a job, many expressed problems with mental well-being:

     Your sense of self-worth goes downhill very rapidly and your feeling of depression goes up and certainly I’ve been depressed without realising exactly how depressed I was.

     It does bear down on you and it takes a huge smack, a huge chunk out of your self-esteem, you just feel kind of a prisoner.

In many cases, the loss of the social dimensions of work were also identified as a difficulty:

     Yeah that is hard (money) but the funny thing is, it’s not the worst part! I like working, I love the craic we had a lunchtime and the social life that comes with working! I don’t have that anymore.

Some interviewees highlighted distrust in relations with the social welfare office:

     Yeah, I hated it. It was shocking, absolutely terrible feeling altogether.  Because you feel the people that work there, I don’t find them…actually nice. I actually feel like they’re giving it out of their pocket.

     You can actually feel it, it’s tangible, the kind of resentment coming through from behind the counter…

In 2012, with unemployment at 14%, many of the people we spoke to were very pessimistic about their chances of securing work in the future. Older workers spoke of being on the metaphorical scrapheap. Younger people more often raised the possibility of emigration, and were more concerned with their lack of experience, but also wary of internships and other schemes being foisted upon them.

Although many highlighted difficulties with the initial process of establishing entitlements or problems with ‘signing on’, only one of our 2012 respondents reported difficulties with conditionality around actively seeking work:

     The ‘social’ would be getting on to you , you know, why aren’t you applying for jobs and you’d say I applied for this job, this job this job, and they’d say where’s your proof, you know. And I don’t have it you know.

In 2014 jobseekers reported very different experiences beyond the ‘scarring’ experience of unemployment. They experienced activation measures primarily as a threat for any non-compliance with the office, which exacerbated stress and in some cases depression. While some were pleased to be ‘put on a scheme’, many others saw activation measures as condescending or even coercive, and reported considering emigration, applying for jobs for which they were unsuited and unqualified. Relations between claimants and the office appeared increasingly strained, with surveillance and pressure from officers, and strategic presentation of job-search activities by claimants.

Higher levels of distrust between claimants and officers emerged in these interviews, around practically all elements of engagement, from contact by letter through to face-to-face meetings.

     During that particular presentation that there was kind of, there was an assumption that a few of us in the room were going to be abusing it.

This ‘group engagement’ explanation of rights and responsibilities, perhaps unintentionally, works to stigmatise jobseekers as potential fraudsters. Training in jobsearch activities was often resented. While this might be explained away as a simple mismatch of training and jobseekers, the obligatory nature of these sessions contributed towards negative feelings; as one respondent summed it up:

     It’s just paying more people…To sit on their arses and make the unemployed feel stupid.

More concerning was the emergence of compulsion to seek work, apply for jobs, accept work and even take on internships, by case officers who possessed discretion over the use of sanctions:

     I got a good one. I’ve had bastards before who just ‘oh no well you have to do this’, but I won’t be doing it in five weeks’ time, ‘still doesn’t matter just do it’.

     I was obligated to go to this interview for a receptionist position like I had to go. Like they told me that eh there’s a receptionist interview go to this or we will stop your job seeker benefit or whatever.

     I’d have to do nineteen and a half hours’ work every week for an extra twenty quid on top of your dole…and it was…like it was never stated explicitly but you got the impression that you had to do this, you know.

Rather than a collaboratively negotiated job-search strategy, these claimants reflected that their labour market activities were being dictated by welfare officers, often with unsatisfactory or counter-productive results, like constantly applying for jobs for which they were unqualified. Institutional pressure to reduce case loads or to fill places on schemes seemed to override long-term thinking about job quality and career development.

This clearly has knock-on effects, both in the mental well-being of jobseekers who are subjected to threats of sanctions and compelled to apply for jobs regardless of their likelihood of success, and in ensuring that any job or hours will be filled, depressing wages and more importantly, reducing the onus on employers to provide decent work in good conditions:

     I mean, I’ve been for several interviews that I’m over qualified to do and still wouldn’t get the job because I would probably expect the pay to reflect my experience and they don’t want to do that, they just want to employ someone on minimum wage.

     Desperation sets in and you’ll apply for anything you know?

Here we see that jobseekers’ feeling of personal control in their lives is significantly reduced, as is their opportunity to make meaningful choices about their career orientation. We would argue that frequent unsuccessful applications contribute significantly to feelings of personal failure and anxiety, which are counter-productive for actually securing work. To round this off, consider the experience of one individual who attempted to get involved in volunteering, surely a positive step in staying active and work-ready:

     They had a whole load of questions, a lot of demeaning questions about why I was volunteering. One of them was more or less along the lines of ‘why are you volunteering when you could be looking for work?’

The difference between 2012 and 2014 is quite marked. While the 2012 sample largely reflected the economic and social problems of unemployment, by 2014 processes introduced under Pathways to Work were significantly exacerbating these negative experiences, with questionable economic benefits, and creating a climate of distrust between claimants and officers.

Our 2016 sample included unemployed jobseekers, individuals on internships or other schemes and part-time workers seeking further work. Within this sample distrust and underlying hostility towards welfare services were widespread. Individuals narrated their unemployment as being orchestrated by powerful actors in the market economy who were organised against their interests. Experiences ranged from highly-qualified individuals being forced to take on low-paid unskilled work to being ‘warehoused’ for years working in government schemes for minimal remuneration. Part-time workers endured effectively ‘zero-hours’ contracts and poor conditions for fear of losing entitlements if they left.

The perverse consequences of blunt conditionality in activation schemes really became apparent in our 2016 corpus. Many individuals found that their skills and professional qualifications were wasted because of the compulsion to seek and accept any work:

     I couldn’t get work. [in industrial design] and they told me to go waitressing. And I was waitressing, and on the dole, and just picking up work when I could. And now my qualifications are no good like.

Ironically, the activation policies of the state in creating internships to connect individuals to work have dissolved opportunities for good quality employment for highly skilled and motivated individuals, for instance a JobBridge calling for a qualified psychologist where the role was reduced to an internship:

     I’ve done education, I’ve done my community and education development degree, I’ve done nearly ten years’ work with youth workers, I’ve gone back to college to do psychology to try and improve myself so I can have the qualifications for the job and the experience and another degree. [When] I saw this on JobBridge I wanted to tear my hair out. What is going on in this country is that we have to keep chasing the cheese, no matter what you do somebody moves the cheese to somewhere else so we have to keep climbing and climbing and climbing.

By 2016 the individual experience of jobseekers began to reflect changes in the way the Irish economy worked, for instance, in the conditions of part-time workers, younger workers, individuals connected to quasi-state ‘schemes’, and in the normalisation of ‘part-time’ even within state education.

     I worked on that scheme for four and a half years and afterwards I still did not have a job. That was being with an organisation for approximately nine years and at that stage I still didn’t get a job.

     You can decide to take the shift or not but if you don’t take the shift then you don’t get in with the people then if you don’t get in with the people or if some of them don’t like you then you won’t be getting calls very much unless they are desperate and they need you.

While there are many factors which are re-shaping the Irish economy at present, clearly the commitments to employers and taxpayers within Pathways to Work contribute towards the experiences of these jobseekers. The imperative of moving individuals from unemployment into work – any work, and the commitment to provide a steady stream of workers to any employer mean that poor-quality jobs which simply cannot provide a living income, much less security or stability become increasingly widespread, and especially compulsory for young entrants to the labour market, potentially a ‘scarring’ experience. This relationship between social welfare and the low-wage economy was explicitly recognised by many job-seekers:

     It’s kind of like a revolving door, because one person is gone and another person is put in their place.

     People of my generation have a strong hard work ethic, but they also want to be paid fairly. Whereas if they employ a young person they are going in at the lowest rate and they can manipulate them.

While all of our respondents were strongly committed to work, and had the ambition of finding decent jobs and would accept contract work or part-time hours as a stop-gap, they increasingly experienced the welfare system and employers as unsympathetic or even exploitative.

Overall, our qualitative interviews suggest a very pronounced trend towards negative experiences of welfare services, which arguably exacerbate the negative and scarring elements of unemployment. Previously high levels of trust have eroded. While difficult to measure empirically, the maintenance of high-levels of trust is essential to a functioning activation policy; in the absence of implicit trust claimants cannot concentrate directly on job-seeking, but become anxiously focused on satisfying the requirements of engagement or providing proof of their jobseeking.

By their longitudinal scope, our interviews show the shift in the experience of activation over time. Within this sample, no individual was unemployed uninterruptedly from 2012 to 2016, such long-term unemployment being rather rare. However, many individuals were intermittently unemployed, and they directly commented on the palpable shift in the experience of unemployment. One woman who had been unemployed for a period during the boom and in 2014 stated:

Before I felt like I was just looking for a job, but now I feel like I’m working for the social welfare officer.

Another man had his benefit claim suspended after he was unable to attend meetings due to illness, which left him destitute, living off savings and relations, and only the intervention of another agency restored his entitlements.

     Well, they funded me for a bit, but then they cut me off for months, and it’s only that I went to MABS and MABS got my money re-instated. They cut me off for ages.

Such cases are precisely within the letter of social welfare regulations, and as our research has no access to DSP files, we cannot examine official proceedings or decisions. What is abundantly clear is that, over time, the system is becoming more alienating and punitive. Our research indicates that the ‘street-level’ question of how welfare policies are implemented genuinely matters. Indeed, the monetary value of welfare payments is not necessarily the only concern of claimants; how they are treated matters, in particular, the conditions under which they receive their payments, and whether the office appears as flexible and humane rather than a bureaucracy, which is not only faceless, but sometimes heartless.


Dr Tom Boland is a lecturer in sociology and Dr Ray Griffin is a lecturer in strategic management, WIT. Read their previous blog post on Ireland’s welfare pathway


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