Remaking the relations of work and welfare
Remaking the relations of work and welfare

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Remaking the relations of work and welfare

3 Personal agency, participation and refusal: gathering evidence

While it is difficult to exaggerate the impact of this construction of ‘welfare dependency’, particularly in the USA, this construction does not go unchallenged. A very wide range of groups of people who are poor or who are subject to discrimination succeed in shaping welfare arrangements by evading, refusing or resisting policies. Historically, there are numerous examples of collective agency in resisting and reshaping welfare policies. In the USA, Fox Piven and Cloward (1977) trace the history of poor people's movements that began around the time of Roosevelt's New Deal, and continued with the considerable successes of the industrial workers’ movement and the civil rights movement.

Some comparable movements are well-known in the UK, most notably the hunger marches and the Jarrow March of the 1930s depression, but there are also numerous other effective protests against poverty by welfare rights groups, claimants' unions and feminist campaigns against cohabitation rules in the 1970s and 1980s.

More recently, resistance to workfare policies has taken a number of forms. Least common, but with a stronger history in Canada and the USA, are active forms of explicit political protest. Swanson (1997) describes an extended campaign that delayed the introduction of workfare in British Columbia in the mid 1990s. Protesting groups took their cause to the United Nations on the grounds that workfare breaches the UN Covenant on Social Economic and Cultural Rights, which requires signatory nations to allow their citizens to earn a living by ‘freely chosen’ work.

In Quebec, resistance was registered by community groups who, as prospective employers, were eligible to take on workfare clients. They boycotted the programmes as inequitable and as causing ‘job substitution’ (Shragge and Deniger, 1997). Swanson describes trades unions' protests in New Brunswick over job substitution, which attracted much popular local support, and successful prosecution of a legal grievance. Abramovitz (1996) catalogues an extensive range of protests by women activists in the USA against workfare reforms. These may have made some contribution to the continuing protected position of lone mothers while their first child remains below school age under the PRWORA.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Protest against reductions in Works Progress Administration payments, Washington DC, 1937

Such resistance undoubtedly represents only a small part of the picture. But although workfare polices have a major impact on the lives of those who come within their ambit, the processes of policy implementation are not smooth and mechanical. Both in express protest, and in their efforts to accommodate their lives to policy demands, groups and individuals act to obstruct or amend policies. Horton and Shaw's (2002) study of the Los Angeles workfare programme found disappointment among claimants with humiliating and rigid bureaucratic procedures, which produced complaint and resistance. Bringing together claimants produced solidarity, raised collective awareness of the faults of the programme, and expressed criticism of the policy-makers' ignorance of their difficulties.

Kingfisher's (1996) analysis of women's narratives about US welfare found them appropriating dominant views for subversive, resistant purposes. They appeared to accept and adopt the categories used by policy-makers, while deploying them to define themselves outside these categories as responsible mothers, committed workers and as reluctant to be dependent. Through such ‘reverse discourses’, Kingfisher argues, women confront the contradictions of the system.

There are also important questions about the extent to which withdrawal and non-participation constitute resistance. In his extensive study of youth training in the 1980s and 1990s in the UK, Mizen (1994) argues that participation in schemes was infused with scepticism, reluctance and a deeply instrumental attitude on the part of trainees who saw through bogus claims of quality training and subverted attempts to manage them. Rates of refusal and early leaving were consistently high, thus subverting many of the programmes' personal development claims. Hollands's (1990) study pointed to the ways in which schemes fostered ‘workless cultures’, involving deliberate, and sometimes politicised and collectivised, avoidance.

How far these responses go beyond cultures of avoidance and non-cooperation to constitute resistance is less clear, not least because it is exceptionally difficult to find evidence of the significance of refusals and withdrawals in the evaluation data on workfare programmes. One way of getting a glimpse of how far people participate, avoid or resist welfare to work is to look at the evidence from the first mandatory programme in the UK – the New Deal for Young People (NDYP).

Since 1998, 18- to 24-year-olds who have been claiming job seekers allowance (JSA) for six months have been required to join the New Deal programme. Following a ‘Gateway’ period of intensive counselling, advice and job search guidance with a Personal Adviser, clients choose between a job with a training component (subsidised placement with an employer, the Environmental Task Force or a community project), and full-time education or training. Clients who gain subsidised employment are paid at the market rate set by their employer. Others receive a weekly allowance fractionally above the minimum JSA rate. Clients are sanctioned by withdrawal of the allowance for repeatedly refusing placements, absenteeism or drop-out. In practice, some clients remain in place for the whole programme, some leave during the Gateway period during their placement on a job or course, or before they complete a job search afterwards.

It is difficult to gather clear information about the point at which they leave, what happens to some leavers immediately afterwards and the longer-term outcomes. Government data used to monitor the NDYP comes in the form of monthly statistics which provide some basic information.

Activity 2

Examine Table 1 carefully. Make notes on what you can gather about participation, dropout and completion, and about differences between the groups identified. As you do so, think about the kinds of explanations you would expect to find for the differences between social groups in patterns of participation and outcomes from NDYP.

Table 1: Position at end of December 2002 of those who had their first 18- to 24-year-old NDYP interview in October 2001, by client characteristics, Great Britain

All % Male % Female % People with disabilities % Whites % Ethnic minorities % No qualifica­tions or below NVQ Level 2 % Qualifications NVQ Level 2 or above %
9,942 who have had a first New Deal interview in October 2001 of which: 9942 6964 2956 1226 7745 1747 3569 1099
As a percentage of all 100 70 30 12 78 18 36 11
On an option: 323 100 244 100 77 100 57 100 246 100 57 100 156 100 41 100
Employment 34 11 26 11 8 10 9 16 29 12 5 9 18 12 8 20
Education and training 158 49 115 47 41 53 29 51 108 44 37 65 78 50 19 46
Voluntary sector 60 19 38 16 22 29 9 16 46 19 11 19 23 15 11 27
Environment task force 71 22 65 27 6 8 10 18 63 26 4 7 37 24 3 7
Had left New Deal1: 8779 100 6096 100 2667 100 1043 100 6855 100 1530 100 3048 100 955 100
For an unsubsidised job 3191 36 2268 37 916 34 356 34 2595 38 468 31 1060 35 421 44
For other benefits 1259 14 705 12 554 21 183 18 1066 16 153 10 463 15 92 10
For other known destination2 754 9 507 8 246 9 80 8 541 8 165 11 221 7 71 7
Unknown destination 3575 41 2616 43 951 36 424 41 2653 39 744 49 1265 42 358 38
Source: based on DWP, 2002, Table 10
1 The breakdown of this category is the immediate destination on leaving; the individual's position at the end of the month may have changed. 2 This includes young people, who, on leaving New Deal, continue to claim JSA. Percentages may not add up to 100 due to incomplete data or rounding.


There are clearly some major differences, as well as many areas of similarity, between all the social groups identified regarding which options they follow and what they move on to. Many different explanations might be offered. We will return to the more significant differences and explanations later. What is beyond any doubt, at this stage, is that it is impossible to judge, on the basis of this kind of evidence alone, who refuses to participate and how these patterns reflect differences in personal lives. One possible source of explanation of differences in this data is that employment opportunities for young people differ greatly between different parts of the country. Such variations might help us to understand much better the causes and effects of participation in (and refusal of) welfare-to-work programmes. Sunley et al. (2001) analysed the spatial distribution of unemployment and the success rates of NDYP leavers in securing jobs (see Figures 4 (a) and 4 (b)).

Figure 4
(Source: based on Sunley et al., 2001, p. 489-490, Figures 2 and 3)
Figure 4 (a) Youth unemployment by New Deal areas, 1997; (b) NDYP participants moving into unsubsidised jobs by New Deal areas, as at April 2000

Activity 3

Compare Figures 4 (a) and 4 (b), beginning with a locality that you know well, then look at north-south differences and national differences, and finally compare the largest conurbations with other localities. Make notes on the relationship between high and low levels of youth unemployment, and high and low levels of entry into jobs.

  • Is there a spatial match between the proportions of unemployed and of those gaining jobs after NDYP?

  • If so, is it uniform or variable?

  • If it is variable, is there a difference by region or by size of area?

  • What interpretations come to mind about patterns and variations?


There are clearly major differences between localities, and some close correspondences between levels of local youth unemployment and the job successes of leavers. Again, we will return to these points. For now, it is important to note that although this additional evidence offers some important pointers to the significance of patterns of participation and withdrawal, it is by no means sufficient to make sense of them. Other kinds of evidence are needed.


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