Project cited in Time magazine

February 27, 2020     Leave a Comment

A feature article on the impending loss of ‘food stamps’ for those living in poverty in the United States cites the WelCond project’s evidence from the UK.

Abby Vesoulis’ feature ‘I Think People Will Starve.’ Experts Are Worried About the Hundreds of Thousands Who Could Lose Food Stamps Come April says 700,000 people could lose this vital part of the US social security system. In addition, new proposals would see work requirements extended from those up to age 49 to people up to 65.

The article goes on to explore the question of whether linking social security eligibility to work requirements is effective. It cites our WelCond project’s findings that mandatory requirements are not effective and actually create many negative effects including some people turning to ‘survival crime’.

WelCond Co-Investigator Prof Suzanne Fitzpatrick from Heriot-Watt University added: ‘There is certainly an impact on how many people claim benefits, but that’s not at all the same as saying you’ve moved people into work. Often, what you’ve done is just make them destitute, or dependent on other, more problematic ways of getting by.’

New blog: Navigating the absurdity of Irish welfare

February 6, 2020     Leave a Comment

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. In this new blog Dr Philip Finn from Maynooth University comments on his research with jobseekers in County Kildare. Read more

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.

New research: Universal Credit and ‘in-work conditionality’ – a productive turn?

July 23, 2019     Leave a Comment

This pilot study aims to explore employer responses to proposed new requirements placed on working Universal Credit (UC) claimants to increase their pay through progressing and/or taking on additional hours of work (UC replaces Working Tax Credits). It is led by original WelCond team member Dr Katy Jones at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Whilst policy specifics are developing – trialling is underway – the DWP’s ‘Employer Guide to Universal Credit’ states that workers in receipt of UC may be expected to:

a)         increase their hours

b)         look for ways to progress in their current workplace

c)         search for additional work with a different employer (take on multiple jobs)

d)         take up alternative work elsewhere (move jobs).

Read More

New blog: Disabled people’s experiences of the Employment and Support Allowance Work Related Activity Group

July 22, 2019     Leave a Comment

A new guest blog from Danny Taggart, Ellen Clifford, Jaimini Mehta and Ewen Speed discusses their research which points to fundamental problems with the welfare system.

They report on a collaborative research project was initiated between academics at the University of Essex and Inclusion London, a disabled people’s user-led organisation (DPULO). They found that conditionality and sanctions are ineffective in incentivising disabled people to engage in work-related activity. Instead they create a range of punitive and often perverse incentives that can be detrimental to health. Read the blog

Disabled people’s experiences of the Employment and Support Allowance Work Related Activity Group

July 22, 2019     Leave a Comment

Danny Taggart, Ellen Clifford, Jaimini Mehta and Ewen Speed report on their research which points to fundamental issues with the welfare system

In 2015, a collaborative research project was initiated between academics at the University of Essex and Inclusion London, a disabled people’s user-led organisation (DPULO). The research investigated how disabled people in the ESA WRAG experienced the welfare system as claimants, with particular attention to their experiences of processes of conditionality and sanctioning. Our study was designed, supervised, analysed and disseminated jointly by a disabled activist and policy director at the DPULO and a trainee clinical psychologist working with a clinical psychology academic supervisor. It was a qualitative study and 15 ESA WRAG claimants were interviewed. Read More

Our research cited in UN report

June 27, 2019     Leave a Comment

The WelCond project is delighted to be cited in the final report of UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston being presented in Geneva today (27 June). Professor Alston’s hard hitting report on extreme poverty in the UK strongly criticises the welfare benefits system and concludes: ‘Much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.’

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The state of stasis in Irish welfare conditionality

June 25, 2019     Leave a Comment

Tom Boland & Ray Griffin from Waterford Institute of Technology reflect on the difficulties of achieving policy change

Stasis is not the same as inertia; it is the state where opposing forces cancel each other out, like a car skidding on ice; the wheels spin but the car doesn’t move.

Read More

New Zealand experts call for fundamental change to welfare system

June 24, 2019     Leave a Comment

New Zealand’s current welfare system is no longer fit for purpose and needs fundamental change, according to the government appointed Welfare Expert Advisory Group.

The group’s report says the current social security system ‘was set up in a different time and no longer meets the needs of those it was designed to support’. Successive governments have implemented changes to the system with intended and unintended consequences. Read More

WelCond research cited in major newspapers

June 20, 2019     Leave a Comment

Our project findings on the negative effects of benefit sanctions were cited in two major newspapers recently.

In The Guardian, Social Policy Editor Patrick Butler reported on the Department for Work & Pensions’ decision to stop imposing three-year benefit sanctions by the end of the year. Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd said she agreed with the Work & Pensions Select Committee (to which WelCond also gave evidence) that three-year sanctions are ‘unnecessarily long’. She also said three-year sanctions ‘are counter-productive and ultimately undermine our goal of supporting people into work’. Patrick Butler’s article cited the WelCond finding that ‘sanctions were ineffective at getting jobless people into work and were more likely to reduce those affected to poverty, ill-health or even survival crime’.

Meanwhile, in the New York Times columnist Courtney E Martin raised the question: ‘Does anyone deserve to be poor?’ Writing her series on enduring economic inequality in the United States, Ms Martin considers the advantages of a guaranteed income. She moves on to cite WelCond’s finding that placing conditions on receipt of benefits did not improve the lives of those it was intended to serve, did not increase motivation to work and pushed people further into poverty and negative consequences.

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