Posts Tagged ‘Public Services and the Welfare State’

In-work conditionality is based on weak evidence – but will the policy sink or swim?

The public seem to be unaware of the poor evidence underpinning in-work conditionality, write Jo Abbas and Katy Jones. But research suggests that this policy is unfair and ineffective, and so once Universal Credit is rolled out, it could face resistance both from claimants and the wider public.

The government’s flagship benefit, Universal Credit (UC), sees the introduction of ‘in-work conditionality’ to working social security claimants on a low income. As a result, claimants could face penalties – such as benefit sanctions – if they do not comply with mandatory work-related requirements, including searching for and applying for additional work to meet an earnings threshold.

This marks a substantial policy shift, as many working claimants of tax credits are being moved on to UC and could be affected by this change. Currently a fifth of working UC claimants are in the ‘working – with requirements’ group that could be affected by in-work conditionality. Yet, three million households with someone in work will receive UC once it is fully implemented, and of these approximately one million are expected to be subject to in-work conditionality.

This extension of conditionality to claimants that are already in paid work is one of many controversial intensifications and extensions of our conditional welfare system (see, for example, the extension of conditionality to disabled social security claimants), occurring as part of what critics call a ‘conditionality consensus’ among policymakers. Should we accept these reforms as the new normal? Or is in-work conditionality a step too far?

Using interviews with people subject to in-work conditionality as well as recent polling data we argue that the gradual shift to in-work conditionality is unlikely to be plain sailing. Both the low levels of public support for this reform, and the negative experiences of those subject to it, suggest that government will be hard-pressed to convince the public and working UC claimants that in-work conditionality is either effective or fair.

In-work conditionality in the eyes of working social security recipients

Turning to our first body of evidence, in the recently completed ESRC-funded project, Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change, interviews were conducted with a number of working social security claimants, including some of the first to receive UC.

Working claimants in this study described difficult experiences as they attempted to meet the demands of both employer and Work Coach. Furthermore, identifying any sort of tangible support to progress in work proved difficult. Where respondents had felt pressured by the Job Centre to apply for and take any job while out of work, to them it felt like in-work conditionality simply involved a continuation of this approach.

‘I just felt like they were just pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing you. I had a job’ (Lone parent working variable hours, claiming Job Seekers Allowance)

For those on zero hours contracts, a need to be available for work for one employer was at odds with directives to take on additional hours elsewhere.

‘They said I hadn’t proved that I’d been searching for work but the fact that I’d got work during that period proves that I did! You know…?! It actually proves that I did. To sanction me four weeks’ money, yes, at something like £10 a day, unbelievable’ (Universal Credit claimant, working variable hours)

Several respondents were threatened with, or experienced sanctions for failing to demonstrate sufficient job search activity whilst in work. As a result of this punitive approach, over the course of this longitudinal study, some decided to terminate their claims to in-work financial support, despite remaining eligible.

More in-depth findings relating to in-work conditionality can be found across a number of sources. However, it is safe to say that in-work conditionality as experienced by participants in our project has largely not been welcomed. But what do the wider public think about it?

Public opinion and in-work conditionality

In summer 2017, 1,111 adults in the UK aged 18 to 75 took part in an online poll (Ipsos-Mori – IPR), which included questions on in-work conditionality. Respondents were asked whether it would be acceptable to reduce tax credit payments if claimants: (1) refused an offer of more hours of work; (2) refused an offer of more pay; (3) did not actively search for more hours of work; or (4) actively searched for more pay.

Summarised in Table 1, the findings suggest there is support for less demanding forms of in-work conditionality: 50% said that it was acceptable to reduce tax credit payments if recipients did not accept an offer of more pay, and 54% supported this idea in relation to an offer of more hours (1 & 2). Yet, respondents opposed reducing tax credit payments in response to noncompliance with behavioural requirements to actively search for better pay (42%) or more hours’ work (45%) (3 & 4) similar to the requirements in Universal Credit.

However, the high level of uncertainty among respondents in combination with the marginal levels of net opposition suggests public opinion could shift. The framing of in-work conditionality in the media and by politicians is therefore likely to be a decisive factor in shaping public opinion.

Putting it all together: will in-work conditionality sink or swim?

As in-work conditionality marks a ‘ground-breaking’ shift in social security reform, it is surprising that the public debate has been relatively silent on the topic, with a few exceptions. However, the limited coverage of in-work conditionality may be partially explained by the relatively low numbers of claimants subject to it at present – we could be witnessing the calm before the storm. Related to this, oppositional voices might not yet be loud enough for politicians to take notice, and/or potential issues with in-work conditionality are overshadowed by other pressing issues with the implementation of UC.

Nonetheless, as UC continues to roll out, proponents could struggle to defend in-work conditionality. In the past, policymakers were seemingly comfortable with making crude distinctions between those in and out of work by juxtaposing ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ in stigmatising soundbites. But will there come a time when politicians will say that these formerly “hard-working people” are not working hard enough? This is not beyond the realms of possibility – indeed, over recent years we’ve seen a shift towards an increasingly punitive attitude to formerly “deserving” groups.

The viability of in-work conditionality will also depend on the strength of its opponents and how they make use of the evidence, or lack of. Indeed to date there is no evidence clearly showing that those subject to ‘in-work conditionality’ are progressing in the labour market and there are concerns reforms might be misdirected. Not only do these workers have to manage life on a low, often unpredictable income, they now have to satisfy the demands of an increasingly conditional and, according to some, unfairly punitive welfare system.

Whilst (we’re assuming) the general public is not aware of the weak evidence base underpinning in-work conditionality, the data above suggest at least some degree of hesitancy to accept this policy shift. If the evidence continues to stack up, including more accounts of claimants’ negative experiences, then this aspect of the Universal Credit could face resistance both from those directly affected and the wider public.


Note: the above draws on research done as part of the Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change project.

About the Authors

Jo Abbas is a PhD candidate at the University of Bath.



Katy Jones is a Research Fellow in the University of Salford’s Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies Unit.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).



Disciplinary neoliberalism: coercive commodification and the post-crisis welfare state

Fiona Dukelow and Patricia Kennett examine the post-2008 welfare states in Ireland, Britain, and the US. They explain how each of these countries experienced an acceleration in the operation of disciplinary neoliberalism – through punitive regimes of surveillance and sanctions – and consider the implications of these contemporary welfare policies.

The Great Recession saw the unravelling of a financialised growth model into a full-blown crisis by 2008. In the aftermath, what is apparent is that financialised capitalism in unison with neoliberalism not only survived but thrived. The current configuration and integration of neoliberalism and financialisation, and their penetration into every aspect of everyday life, is contributing to a transformation of prevailing societal norms within Anglo-liberal capitalism.

In our research we suggest that coercive commodification is a social policy tool that is becoming increasingly embedded in how the instabilities of the Anglo-liberal model are governed and in how disciplinary neoliberalism evolves. Focusing on Ireland, the UK, and the US, we highlight the ways in which these processes are playing out in these three countries.

Disciplinary Neoliberalism, coercive commodification, and financialisation: making the connections

A key starting point for explaining the reconfiguration of contemporary norms is Stephen Gill’s notion of disciplinary neoliberalism which distinguishes between two specific but interrelated and reinforcing faces of power. One operates at a macro/transnational level and is associated with the structural power of capital to impose discipline on public institutions and to make governments accountable to markets. The other operates at a micro/local level, as a form of behaviour power through which individuals are controlled and disciplined.

The forms and techniques of disciplinary neoliberalism emerging from these two dimensions of power can be demonstrated in a number of ways. The mobility of capital, governance and transactional complexity have facilitated the creation of Global Wealth Chains which are a manifestation of the emerging schism between where value is created, the allocation of profits and wealth, and the differential sets of rules applied to the domestic sphere compared to the `internationally mobile people, entities and assets’. Government intervention following the onset of the Great Recession reflected and reinforced the logic of disciplinary neoliberalism and the disparities between the global and the local spheres. As is now well-known, despite the US and the UK’s latitude around monetary policy, financial markets and financial capital were favoured under quantitative easing. Particularly marked in the case of Ireland, without control of monetary policy, the ECB essentially acted as an agent of disciplinary neoliberalism whilst its wider use of quantitative easing proved a boon for the financial sector.

For our focus on the welfare state, what is significant is the way that this macro imposition of disciplinary neoliberalism has implicating effects on discipline at the micro level and the ways in which social policy is evolving post-crisis as part of the ‘fix’. The concept of coercive commodification resonates with how welfare states, and particularly liberal welfare states, have evolved and the rise, crisis, and further entrenchment of disciplinary neoliberalism post recession. For Esping-Andersen in his work on de-commodification, the emphasis was on the absence of compulsion from the way that individuals engage with the market and sell their labour. Pierson focuses on re-commodification and the dismantling of those aspects of welfare states that provided some protection from market pressures. However, he also identified that dismantling social security operates in tandem with market buffers such as tax credits/in work benefits for example, policy instruments that do not detract from the shift back to commodification, but facilitate it by mediating market exposure.

As restructuring has progressed under disciplinary neoliberalism, and driven by the way the power of (financial) capital has altered market imperatives, the state’s role in commodifying welfare has become an increasingly coercive process. Contemporary welfare policy and practice in Anglo-liberal welfare states may now more aptly be denoted as coercive commodification through which a nexus between housing, work, and welfare is being forged.  It is increasingly an orbit that is closing down any vestiges of choice and stripping back subsequent policy buffers. At the same time this is a process that is evolving with varying degrees of intensity and ideological fervour, longevity, and historical trajectories across the US, the UK and Ireland.

Embedding coercive commodification and disciplinary neoliberalism

As neoliberal ‘heartlands’, both the US and the UK’s recent evolution of coercive commodification embed already existing regimes laid down in the 1990s. The Irish case is a more novice turn, following the severity of its recent phase of disciplinary neoliberalism, which has reduced its capacity to implement compensatory social policies that tended to exist alongside a more explicitly neoliberalised economic regime. Nonetheless, in each case, the intersecting evolution of housing, work, and welfare policies erode both choices and buffers, and ‘lock in’ coercive commodification, loading insecurity on the low paid, a status which cross cuts with other bearers of inequality including age, lone parenthood, and membership of black and minority ethnic groups. And, as social safety nets evolve in more punitive ways, with distinctions in eligibility made between those in (low) paid work and those without work, an emerging opposite effect is the ‘lock out’ of marginalised individuals from access to decent work, welfare or housing that protects them from destitution.

Such patterns are most extreme in the US where the commodification of housing support has reached a point where publicly provided housing has practically disappeared and much of the welfare regime rests on income and housing tax credits which favour those in work. Yet such measures hold people within insecure situations given the fact almost half of all renter households count as rent burdened whilst the US economy’s sizeable low paid sector shows no sign of abating. Conversely, ‘extreme’ poverty is now a phenomenon in the US amongst people no longer eligible for welfare and essentially locked out of the system.

Trends in the UK track elements of the US experience, as the erosion of the benefit system since the 1980s has been replaced by an increasingly punitive regime of surveillance, sanctions, and deterrence whilst the recent evolution of tax credits to the universal credit system heralds a tougher regime. Such changes intersect with the coercive commodification of the social housing system, where housing need is increasingly channelled into the private rental sector under a tightened Housing Benefit regime, with reforms under the Localism Act 2011 diminishing the security traditionally attached to publicly provided housing.

Though not as punitive as the US or UK examples, recent changes in Ireland bear the imprint of coercive commodification. Not least of which is the shift to reliance on a poorly regulated and increasingly financialised private rental market in place of publicly provided housing. This has heaped housing risk and insecurity on renters and is directly fuelling growing homelessness. At the same time, a more coercive turn is emerging in the social protection system including a new sanctions regime instituted in 2010 to address what was considered a poorly policed system.

Resisting disciplinary neoliberalism

Of course, none of what we have identified here is occurring without conflict. Whilst disciplinary neoliberalism attempts to shrink the space and opportunity for resistance, it is also a driver of conflict between classes, cultures and lifestyles, and political groupings, generating macro- and micro-level revolt against global elites and institutions, as well as localised responses to and protest against single issue campaigns.

In all three countries, both traditional and new social movements have given voice to alternate narratives of ‘austerity capitalism’. In the UK and the US, Brexit and the election of Trump are, amongst other reasons, associated with increasing distrust and disjuncture between international institutions, domestic political elites, and the erosion of public services, and particularly to the increasingly obvious bifurcated and exploitative nature of Anglo-liberal globalisation. Through such dynamics, forms of protest are emerging to destabilise and disrupt contemporary Anglo-liberal capitalism and with the potential to shape its future trajectory.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Critical Social Policy.

About the Authors

Fiona Dukelow is Lecturer in Social Policy at University College Cork, Ireland.




Patricia Kennett is Professor of Comparative and International Policy Studies at the University of Bristol.





All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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