First the Grub, then the Morals: Explaining Support for Activation Policies

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

Despite demanding active labour market policies (ALMPs) characterising the recent history of European welfare states, their popularity amongst the public remains largely unexplored. Demanding ALMPs are based on the idea that individuals are responsible for their jobless situation, and they need to be able to re-enter the labour market as soon as possible. If the unemployed do not comply with obligations such as accepting any kind of job, or performing relevant activities – for example, community work – in exchange for their unemployment benefits, they are punished with cuts to their benefits.

These policies, which have redefined the role of welfare states, seem to collect large support amongst the European population. However, there is evidence that the potential beneficiaries of these policies are the major opponents of such demanding measures. Thus, several questions remain about who is more likely to support demanding ALMPs, and what brings people to support them: if it is their interest, their ideological worldviews, or a combination of both.

Our study aims to shed light on the mechanisms that lead people to support these policies, and it suggests that there is a logic of “first the grub, then the morals” behind this support: social-structural characteristics – particularly, educational level and occupational status – precede and shape individuals’ worldviews, which in turn drive the development of people’s policy attitudes. The study is based on data from the 2014 National Election Study in Belgium, a survey that investigates the socio-demographic, political and attitudinal variations among the Belgian population.

We start from the idea that public attitudes towards these policies are guided – as for other welfare policies – by two intertwined principles: ideological beliefs and self-interest. First, individuals have specific ideological worldviews that make them more likely to support policies that are based on certain principles. Demanding ALMPs stress the punitive role of the welfare state towards those who are not perceived as responsible, they value paid work as a mean to escape from poverty and challenge the egalitarian principle of redistribution.

Our findings demonstrate that the specific ideological roots of demanding policies are linked to individuals’ worldviews. People attaching more importance to obedience and respect for authority, and those who want immoral people to be punished, are more in favour of demanding ALMPs, as well as individuals attributing more value to working hard and having a paid job as a moral duty. Amongst the opponents of these policies we find those who praise income equality and social redistribution, and those politically left-wing oriented.

The second explanation for attitudes towards welfare policies is that people support policies if the personal gains of such policies outweigh the personal costs, following a rational, self-interest oriented behaviour. Amongst the Belgian population, we find that individuals in social categories that are potentially most affected by welfare sanctions, namely the unemployed, with a previous experience of unemployment, and with low income are highly opposed to the obligations and cutbacks of demanding policies. This is related to their interest to fully benefit from welfare support without obligations attached to it.

At the same time, we also observe that higher educated people reject demanding ALMPs, but this is not explained by their self-interest. On the contrary, this opposition is driven by the lower importance they attribute to authority and the work ethic. A final consideration goes to the occupational status: also in this case, as for educational level, our findings suggest that we cannot rely on this indicator to claim that a significant relation with policy support is driven only by self-interest. For instance, white-collar workers are against demanding ALMPs but, contrary to the unemployed, this opposition is mainly due to their ideological disposition, and not to their self-interest.

What are the implications of our study? The findings warn scholars to be careful when considering the mechanisms that link socioeconomic characteristics to support for specific welfare policies. These mechanisms cannot be interpreted merely as self-interest, nor as a pure effect of holding certain worldviews. We also suggest that the findings should be taken as a starting point to investigate these general mechanisms in regard to habitus construction and the socialization to particular ideologies through education and one’s occupation.

If these policies are not seen as effective measures for the re-employment of people outside the paid labour market, their implementation might be hampered. In a context where the covid-19 pandemic is likely to bring dramatic consequences on the labour market of several countries, the sustainability of these policies is called into question.

About the authors

Federica Rossetti is a Doctoral Researcher at the Centre for Sociological Research, KU Leuven, Belgium.

Koen Abts is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Tilburg University, the Netherlands.

Bart Meuleman is Professor of Sociology and Survey Methodology at the Centre for Sociological Research, KU Leuven, Belgium.

Marc Swyngedouw is Professor of Political Sociology and Methodology at the Centre for Sociological Research, KU Leuven, Belgium.

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