4.4 Finding ‘the personal’ in policy: responses, refusals and resistances
The reservation wage is one of many meeting points between personal lives and social policies. Personal lives fundamentally condition the rate of pay at which everyone individually decides they can or must work. Policies like New Deal necessarily regulate that level.
Read Extract 2, below, from interviews with three lone mothers who were considering the option of registering for the New Deal for Lone Parents (NDLP), and make a note of how their personal lives shape their responses.
I'm on a career break from my job at – at the moment and working part-time in the local library. I am waiting until my little boy is at full-time school before I return to work. I had a lone parent interview because at the library where I work I was offered 12 hours a week. So I phoned them up to ask about my benefits, how it would affect them. [The Personal Adviser] put all the figures in the box, and it came out that I was going to be worse off. If it had been 16 hours, it would have made a big difference.
I had a visit from the lady from the social, and she said to me, ‘I know you are determined to work, but you know is it really worth it, especially when you start talking about childcare and all the different bits and pieces?’ I said to her, ‘It might not be worth it, but I prefer to be out keeping my brain active as opposed to just sitting at home’. Because when I'm at home it's just housework, ironing, cooking and I hate it you know.
I'm not a material person, but I think most people would agree that it's not worth putting yourself through all that and being only £20 better-off. I suppose that a majority of single parents would agree with that. What's the point? It's more hassle than it's worth, getting the kids organised, getting them out, getting yourself ready, getting yourself out, getting back. I mean, on top of your work you're coming home, looking after these children, making the tea, bathing them, putting them to bed. You really have to have an incentive, you really have to make it worth your while. I know it's a bad attitude to take, but I really would need to get more than £20 a week extra.
The balance of how policy pressures and financial interests meet for these three women is finely poised. For the first, a difference of four hours pay is critical; for the second, the marginal disincentive to work is negligible; for the third the marginal gain is inadequate. The critical allowance thresholds for NDLP are determined politically to strike the balance between incentivising work and avoiding wage inflation. But whether they function as intended is determined by the individual circumstances, beliefs and attitudes of lone parents. There are elements of neo-liberal rational self-interest in all three responses, but how these are expressed is also inflected by personal developmental concerns for the first two women, and by the neo-conservative social disciplinary rationale embraced by the second and resisted by the third.
Participation in NDLP is voluntary. In NDYP it is a condition of welfare. The threat of benefits sanctions gives NDYP some power to shape behaviour. But the examples of Sid's and Jolene's experiences below illustrate how differing individual circumstances radically affect this power:
Sid left his Subsidized Employment Option as a catering assistant in a nursing home because ‘it wasn't really a catering job, it was a skivvy's job’. He thought he would learn how to cook and get some proper catering experience. However, most of the work involved microwaving pre-prepared [sic] food. Sid left the Option knowing he would be sanctioned. However, he knew he could rely on his parents to financially support him during the period of sanction.
Jolene undertook a Voluntary Sector Option at a local community centre. After three weeks, she became ill with flu and was out of work for over a week. She had rung her employer on the first day of illness but did not realize she should have done this for every day of the illness. Even though she had a doctor's certificate, she was sanctioned for two weeks. Jolene was upset that she was sanctioned. For the two weeks she found it difficult to survive. She lives on her own and had to borrow money from friends to pay for electricity and food. She also received £2 a day from a crisis fund.
(O'Connor et al., 2001, p. 75)
Evaluation studies report participants leaving under threat of sanctions (O'Connor et al., 2001). This undoubtedly involves adjustments to their personal reservation wage thresholds. It is here that the scope for agency in resisting and evading programmes is greatest, and that refusal of placements shown in Table 1 may reflect determination to dilute the force of policies that shape personal lives. Faced with a Personal Adviser (PA) who is determined to place them regardless of suitable options, some young people leave for stop-gap work. Ritchie (2000) reports that nearly two-thirds of those who leave do so when unwanted placements loom large. Underlying the statistics of early leaving, non-participation and unknown destinations are innumerable stories of planned non-entry, last minute evasions, and multiple re-registrations. They may be dismissed as chaotic manifestations of disorderly lives or they may constitute resistance. Only research about intent and motivation would be able to illuminate this issue further.
Such actions carry particular meaning amongst minority ethnic groups. The evaluation study of NDLP by Dawson et al. (2000) marks a sharp differentiation between the social integration of black non-participants in the programme, all of whom were already involved in work or training, and Bangladeshi women, who were unlikely to participate because of family support networks and commitments to care for their children. A study by Kalra et al. (2001) amongst Bangladeshis and Pakistanis found that many who left after an initial interview with their PA did so to avoid NDYP. Local personal networks accounted for its poor reputation amongst those who described bad placement experiences and negative attitudes towards Asian clients on past programmes.
These studies show how personal lives, constituted through particular racialised identities, respond to the lived experience of programmes, and may include culturally-based forms of collective refusal. Behind these responses and resistances lie narratives of persuasion and attrition, adjustment and submission. PAs will have striven to engage the attention and win the trust of their clients, drawing out their interests, perhaps trying to fashion them to approximate available options. But the outcomes of such encounters are inextricably bound in a complex web of individual histories, circumstances, networks and dispositions that make up the personal lives of clients. Some options may be unappealing, resonate with negative past experiences, or fit badly with firmly held views or cultural mores which clients are not prepared to compromise.