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Weighing up work willingness in social assistance: a balancing act on multiple levels

Marjolijn De Wilde and Sarah Marchal

No 1808, Working Papers from Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy, University of Antwerp

Abstract: In all European countries, social assistance receipt is conditional upon the willingness to work. Yet despite the harsh consequences of losing social assistance, we know surprisingly little about how social assistance agencies and social workers implement this policy in day-to-day practice. In this paper, we focus on three important questions regarding the implementation of work willingness as a condition for continued social assistance benefit receipt. First, how does the actual implementation of the work willingness condition take place in light of specific client characteristics, circumstances and behaviour? Second, is the interpretation of such behaviour similar across case managers and municipalities, or does the combination of vague work willingness legislation and a decentralized organisation lead to variation in implementation? Third, can such variation be seen as the express objective of decentralization and personalized work willingness assessments? We build on an innovative and purpose-designed factorial survey of social workers in Belgium. We identified the determinants of 582 social workers’ sanction decisions upon a job refusal, clustered in 89 municipalities, on almost 5000 experimentally varied client cases. These unique data allow to distinguish between the effects of individual client characteristics, characteristics of the social workers assessing the individual cases and the characteristics of the local welfare agency and municipality in which she operates. Moreover, we assess how characteristics within and between these levels interact. In line with the literature, we find substantial variation in sanctions related to work unwillingness at the client level, that can be explained by individual client characteristics. Variation between municipalities is relatively limited, and can be fully explained by municipality characteristics. Surprisingly, we find the largest variation at the social worker level. Whereas some of this variation is random, a substantial part can be explained by the characteristics of the social worker. This finding raises concerns about the unintended consequences of the large discretion awarded to social workers within contemporary social assistance schemes.

Date: 2018-03
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