Individual experiences of living on social assistance: Activation policies, social structures, and agency

Bierbaum, Mira (2016). 'Individual experiences of living on social assistance: Activation policies, social structures, and agency' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

This research line (to be considered for the “young scholar meets senior scholar session”) is theoretically based on the capability approach and aims to empirically investigate the role of relational features regarding the individual experience of living on social assistance (SA) and the ways in which activation policies shape and interact with these experiences in a developed country context.
Developed countries have widely embraced activation policies, which tie income support conditional on behavioural requirements to the provision of re-employment services (Immervoll & Scarpetta, 2012). While most studies on activation policies focus on unemployment beneficiaries, this research concentrates on recipients within SA schemes, who until recently have received considerably less attention in this context (Marchal & Van Mechelen, 2013). Ultimately, this research offers an alternative mindset to reconsider the design of activation within SA schemes beyond the currently dominating neo-liberal paradigm and a policy focus on personal responsibilities guided by an “individualised model of agency” (Wright, 2012, p. 323).
The first part is concerned with how individual experiences of living on SA are embedded in social structures. The theoretical point of departure is Amartya Sen’s capability approach with a focus on relational features to allow for the integration of social components. Individual capabilities are understood as the combined, interacting result of individual capacities and the individual’s relative position within social structures (Smith & Seward, 2009). The concept of social exclusion, broadly defined as “being excluded from social relations” (Sen, 2000, p. 4), is used to locate an individual’s relative position in society. Individual experiences of social exclusion interact with and can be shaped by activation policies. These can enhance or inhibit individual capabilities as they influence both capacities (e.g. through training) and the relative position within society (e.g. through the level of income support etc.).
Within this conceptual framework, the research zooms in on individual agency of SA recipients and on how they “engage their own futures” (Appadurai, 2004, p. 63) in the second part. Given the premise that individual agency is central in promoting individual capabilities and therefore substantive freedoms, one cannot ignore how experiences of social exclusion have an effect on agency. Leßmann (2011) criticised the capability approach precisely because it failed to consider interactions between agency at the individual level and social structures as well as temporal aspects of agency. Continuing along the previous line, this criticism is taken into account by conceptualising the enactment of individual agency of SA recipients as being firmly embedded in social relations and focussing on the process aspects of freedom of choice. Activation policies and involved social actors, inter alia policymakers, caseworkers, other SA beneficiaries, or people in employment, are thereby seen as creators of the context and the dynamics in which SA recipients form their motivations, intentions, actions and non-actions in a continuous process (Wright, 2012, p. 323).
The empirical analysis is based on primary data collected in 50 semi-structured interviews with SA recipients in the Dutch city of Maastricht. This approach allows a detailed, contextualised understanding of beneficiaries’ lived experiences regarding SA receipt and activation policies and their own interpretations of what they do, why they do it, and what hinders or supports them in reintegration. Respondents lead the discussion and compile their own narratives along the main topics of living on SA (including financial and social aspects), the meaning of work, current job search activities, barriers and supporting factors in job search, and questions on the activation activities of the Social Services. Interview data is analysed using thematic analysis in an iterative process.
The results of these qualitative studies will finally be used to propose a series of refinements of current activation policies that take into account aspects of social influences and shared agency to enrich the space within which policy solutions are sought. These refinements will be tested in laboratory experiments to isolate causal mechanisms in a controlled setting before implementing changes in the field.

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