Welfare Recipients at the Mercy of the Welfare Officer

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

‘I had to work in the second-hand shop and I’ve been crying ever since (..) and then I feel like I am not being heard ( …) that they can stop your benefits, that’s something you have to deal with. I feel like a puppet; they’re playing with you (… ) they decide for you’.

The above quote demonstrates the feeling of vulnerability because of decisions made by another person, over which you have no control. That may happen when you suddenly become dependent on social security and – as above – obliged to participate in a mandatory work programme of which you yourself may not see the point. The feeling of being “at the mercy” of the welfare officer or, more generally, the loss of control over yourself in the relationship with another, is the result of arbitrary power. 

The neo-republican theory of non-domination provides a strong moral argument to minimize the exercise of arbitrary power in dependent and unequal relationships, which we usually find in the welfare-to-work context. Based on this political theory my article explores the extent to which external formal rules are able to prevent welfare officers and work supervisors from exercising arbitrary power over welfare recipients who participate in mandatory work programmes. 

The article draws on 136 semi-structured interviews with municipal staff, welfare officers, work supervisors, welfare recipients, and members of client councils and 45 observations of interactions between welfare recipients and welfare officers in three municipalities in the Netherlands. Doing research in different municipalities was relevant as in the Netherlands, municipalities are to some extent free to implement their own municipal regulations. For example, the selected municipalities differed clearly in their sanctioning policies. 

The findings show that in general there were very few municipal regulations that governed the decisions or actions that a welfare officer or a work supervisor may take and that as such constrain their discretionary freedom. For example, none of the municipal regulations provided instructions on the conditions for referring recipients to a mandatory work programme. In addition, while only a small part of Dutch labour law applies to the relationship between work supervisors and welfare recipients participating in mandatory work programmes, the municipal regulations contained hardly any alternative rules protecting work relations in the welfare context.  

The findings also reveal some important differences with regard to the interpretation of rules that (theoretically) confer rights to welfare recipients, allowing them to control discretionary spaces from below. While in the lowest municipal sanctioning regime these kind of rules were often interpreted as opportunities for self-development and instruments that enable recipients’ transition to a paid job, in the two other municipal regimes, recipients often misinterpreted these rules as measures of control in the hands of the welfare officers, or ‘agents of domination’.

For example, the requirement to formulate learning goals was often interpreted as an instrument for welfare officers to assess whether recipients were fulfilling their obligations, instead of an instrument that enabled the recipients to share their views on how the mandatory work programmes contributed to their personal development. And the requirement to evaluate the recipients’ progress on the mandatory work programmes was often interpreted as an opportunity for welfare officers and supervisors to tell participants what they had done wrong. 

More in general, in the latter municipalities the focus on obligations completely overshadowed recipients’ right to social assistance benefits and support in re-integrating into regular work.  In these  municipalities welfare recipients also felt particularly pressured to participate in a mandatory work programme. Their main motive for participating was often simply to avoid a financial sanction and many recipients adapted their behaviour to fit their expectations of the welfare officer’s behaviour.

It is concluded that external rules were not only insufficiently implemented in the municipalities studied, they also ceased to be capable of constraining arbitrary power, especially in strict sanctioning municipal regimes where recipients felt insecure and where the institutional context had become a source of domination. In these municipalities welfare recipients sought to avoid risks and played the role of the ‘good recipient’. By contrast in an institutional context where recipients felt more secure they were more inclined to make positive use of the rules to their own advantage. Hence, the findings suggest that external rules may only protect welfare recipients from being subjected to arbitrary power on the condition that they are implemented in a predictable and secure institutional context. As such the research confirms Gofmann’s work on roleplaying and social interaction. Finally, the findings indicate that welfare-to-work policies inspired by neo-republican theory are desirable not only for moral reasons, but also because they are more efficient than the hard sanctioning welfare regime.


About the author

Anja Eleveld is Associate Professor VU Amsterdam.

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