Vulnerable Unemployment and the ‘Ingredients of Success’

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society.  Click here to access the article.

When looking at clients with a long history of unemployment and substantial health and social problems, stories of success are limited. Success is defined here as exiting benefits into employment or education. Thus, when a client does manage to gain employment or enter education, it represents an unusual story of success seen from a political, organisational and individual perspective. Thus, it is relevant to study these extraordinary trajectories and find out what we can learn about current active labour market policies from these client cases.

Despite various efforts to boost employability, the challenge of integrating vulnerable unemployed people into the labour market persists. A more or less constant rate of 15 to 25 per cent of the working-age population are outside the labour market. Recent research indicates that the coercive, disciplining and sanctioning elements of workfare policy, which play a substantial and growing role in this policy area, cause even more harm when it comes to the vulnerable unemployed. Research in welfare-to-work policy tends to neglect client perspectives and thus reinforces the tendency to see clients as ‘objects’ rather than ‘subjects’ in the process of activation. On the one hand, this implies that we know little about clients’ perspectives on how activation processes are experienced, and the positive or negative impact it has on their lives, opportunities and circumstances. On the other, irrespective of clients’ formal room to influence activation practices (which is limited), they do have an influence on these practices.

During the first year of fieldwork in the LISES project it became apparent that knowledge about former cash benefit recipients who had transitioned to employment was limited in the Danish municipalities. To a large extend, these stories of success were invisible to frontline workers. While this group of clients is relatively small, there is valuable knowledge in their experiences. However, this kind of data becomes unavailable when job centres lose contact with clients once they leave the benefit system. Thus, our article aimed to provide insights into the crucial elements involved in making the move from vulnerable unemployed to being ready for a job, as well as finding and keeping work. Interestingly, the narratives contained very limited reference to currently dominating ALMP policy tools such as sanctions and participation in evidence-based programmes.

Wright has recently conceptualised the active welfare subject in two different models. She critically addresses the dominant model that regards clients as ‘becomers’.This model draws on a binary perception: passive clients must be made active, unmotivated clients must be made motivated. The agency lies within the active employment system and an idea of a transformative state rather than with the client. A counter model can be identified whereby clients are ‘beings’ capable of making decisions and already taking action. Drawing on Lister’s work, she points to four forms of agency: getting by, getting back at, getting organised and getting out. We are inspired by this counter model and its inherent agency perspective. The definition of success above thus relates to agency of ‘getting out’.

In our analysis, we found an overarching theme put forward by caseworkers and their former clients related to agency. When the client agency is focused on ‘getting out’, it aligns with the institutional role of the caseworker, enabling them to work together. These individual success narratives were inseparable from the institutional framework and the space given to clients to participate actively in the process. We also found success was linked to clients being counselled to navigate (and ultimately leave) the system through the values of responsiveness and respect. Van Berkel and colleagues have convincingly argued that context (policy, governance, organisational and occupational) matter in welfare-to-work, but also point towards personalisation of activation services as a tool make policy more successful. While individual agency is not sufficient to explain the employment success, it does provide an important contribution in terms of having a more nuanced understanding the agency of the client or even the perception of agency as important to understand the success (or lack of) for the welfare to work policies.

Gathering knowledge from clients, not only within the system but also after they leave is a road to reflection and possible change in practice. The policy learning from these narratives of success, specifically the finding that the possibility of agency that aligns the individual and the institutional is pivotal to success, poses an important challenge to the field. How do we ensure a focus on possible and constructive forms of agency for clients, not as something that you have or do not have, but rather as something that can develop and change over time? While there is a strong focus in welfare studies and policy discourse on the responsibility of the individual, it is necessary to understand how this is connected to relations with the professional, the institutional framework and the broader context. The danger in focusing solely on the individual is that it limits possibilities for success with clients who are easy to work with because they have the right form of agency. A second finding in the analysis is that clients who manage to exit the system have experienced a high level of system counselling as opposed to job counselling. This indicates the need for professional competence in providing the client with sufficient information. If based on the values of responsiveness and respect it allows the client to participate, without causing an information overload that renders him or her unable to respond or take part in the process.

About the authors

Sophie Danneris is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Aalborg University.

Dorte Caswell is Associate Professor at Aalborg University.


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