Navigating the absurdity of Irish welfare

February 6, 2020     Leave a Comment

Dr Philip Finn from Maynooth University comments on his research with jobseekers in County Kildare

‘All changed, changed utterly’. Perhaps not, but there is little doubt that in the ensuing years since the financial crash and expiation via austerity exercised upon the most vulnerable, the Irish social security system has undergone a meaningful qualitative change.  Once considered an activation laggard due to light implementation of welfare conditionality and sanctions, there has been a refashioning of the system to undo a supposed embedded passivity. 

There has been institutional reform aplenty with the creation of Intreo; a one-stop shop combining provision of income protection and public employment services alongside referrals to other services.  More significant is the marketisation of employment services for the first-time through the JobPath programme operated according to geographical location by two contractors, Seetec and Turas Nua, on a payment-by-results model. Alongside the already existing non-profit Local Employment Services, these recent changes produce a labyrinthine welfare architecture increasingly difficult for claimants to understand and navigate.

Permeating these changes is an intensification of behavioural conditionality underpinned by sanctions for those on Jobseeker payments, as well as its expansion to the previously exempt group of lone parents.  Indeed, the government strategy Pathways to Work  cultivates a governing rationality of ‘active job-seeking’ emphasising ‘rights and responsibilities’ (PTW 2012, 2014, 2016). The obligated commitment to job-searching and/or improvement of one’s employability (PTW 2012:10) for working age payments and others considered ‘economically inactive’ becomes a means of reducing welfare dependency (PTW 2016:14).  Such technocratic language is shadowed by a political rhetoric which, although light in comparison to our UK neighbours, still emphasises the remedial benefits of compelling work-activity under threat of sanction.  It is a country to be run, as our Taoiseach Leo Varadkar reminds us, for the benefit of ‘those who get up early in the morning’ (Bardon 2017). 

Accompanying this rationality are new techniques of conditionality attempting to direct the conduct of claimants.  Jobseekers must contractualise their welfare relationship via the Record of Mutual Commitments and develop a Personal Progression Plan with their caseworker before being subject to interventions including mandatory referral to recruitment agencies, training courses or other public and private employment services; obligated attendance at employment affairs; provision of job-search evidence and regular monitoring through meetings, phone-calls and/or text messages.  The threat of sanction in itself serves as a technique of conditionality as claimants face a €44 reduction of standard payment (€203) or suspension of payment for up to nine weeks for non-compliance. 

My interviews with 42 jobseekers in County Kildare in the east of Ireland highlights how this intensification of conditionality and sanctions serves to shape how claimants experience and interact with the system.  In contrast to the oft perceived generosity of Irish welfare payments, claimant experience is marked by struggle necessitating inventive strategies of budgeting, borrowing and utilising family and friends’ support to ‘get by’ on a weekly basis: 

We have no heating, you might have noticed … it was a choice between paying rent, making sure there was food on the table (Sinead)

Payments were rarely enough to live on, in and of themselves, meaning that life was continually about cutting back, stretching resources and making tough decisions. Unsurprisingly then, ‘getting off’ welfare was the most pressing concern for the majority of claimants. Most had strong work histories but were frustrated in their job-seeking; their own strategies for ‘getting off’ welfare coalesced around returning to education in pursuit of a better future.  This turn toward education and training was usually performed on their own initiative with little guidance from public or private employment services.   

The idea of a ‘proper job’ was central to the medium to long-term strategies of claimants who feared that being compelled into low pay work would intensify insecurity via a potential loss of other welfare supports such as medical cards and housing assistance:

… there’s no houses, tell the social welfare to leave me the fuck alone ‘til there is a house, what am I gonna do? [mock excitement] OH YEAH I GOT A JOB YEAH! But I’m fucking homeless … (Peter)

Caught within a trap between the security of benefits that were never enough and a fear of insecure low paid work, a significant number of claimants were involved in a ‘dramaturgical performance’ (de Certeau 1984) of the ‘good jobseeker’.  It meant feigned compliance with conditionality, such as provision of false job-search evidence, and superficial engagement with caseworkers as necessary tactics to protect their needs and interests:

… I do apply for things randomly, I applied for a job as a beauty consultant … an eyebrow threader … I’ve no idea what that is … but you have to because then the boxes are ticked … (Nick)

For a small minority this was a deliberate refusal of formal work which they perceived as uninteresting, lacking autonomy and of little worth to them.  This refusal afforded them opportunities to spend time with their children, to be active in their local community providing skilled labour to neighbours, volunteering, and political activism.  The majority of those doing the ‘dramaturgical performance’ (de Certeau 1984) of the ‘good jobseeker’ did so however to protect an income that while never enough to be comfortable was central to their weekly survival tactics. 

While much of the literature from other jurisdictions identifies the punitive nature of conditionality what emerges in Ireland is a system marked by indifference rather than penalty.   ‘Ticking boxes’ and ‘pencil pushers’ were common references as claimants articulated engagement in an overly bureaucratic system which offered little in the way of helpful job-seeking advice or advice regarding training or education.  Evidence regarding sanctions also suggests indifference.  While sanctions have certainly increased annually since the introduction of PTW there is evidence to indicate that it is primarily the threat of sanctions which is being used as a mechanism for engagement (no matter how superficially).  Only two participants in my research were sanctioned but all were acutely aware of the penalty for non-engagement.  Similarly, there is a discrepancy between the 95,880 claimants identified as not engaging in JobPath up to 2019 and the resulting 12,000 applied sanctions.  Thousands of claimants are also being obligated under this threat of sanctions to complete the JobPath progamme twice. There is then an absurdity in this eternal recurrence of the welfare pathway where the frustrated agency of claimants is wasted navigating an indifferent system.

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