6 A short biography of Mandy: comparing theories about work and welfare
Mandy's biography has some striking parallels with Tamarla Owens', but also some clear differences from it. It comes from an evaluation report on NDYP. Despite its brevity, it illustrates the potential of beginning from ‘the personal’ to show how social policies constitute welfare subjects.
Read Extract 3 below. Write a sentence about how you think neo-liberals, neo-Marxists, governmentality theorists and feminists would make sense of the way in which NDYP policies and Mandy's personal life ‘frame’ one another. Keep in mind the part played by Mandy's PA in the processes involved, and any aspects of Mandy's conduct that represent resistance to the processes of her own constitution as a responsible, self-governing welfare subject. Note too any comparisons and contrasts with Tamarla Owens' story.
Extract 3: ‘Mandy’
Mandy, now aged 21, left home when she was 16 due to a conflict with her family. After a period of sleeping rough, she was temporarily housed in a hostel for young women where she lived for a few years. About a year before starting NDYP, Mandy moved from the hostel into a flat. However, she found it difficult to make the transition to independent living, especially with managing her money and paying for bills.
On joining NYPD, Mandy enrolled in full-time education to gain secretarial skills. However, she found it hard to adjust to being in education again. She also felt that there was no support for her to make this transition. She became disenchanted with the [Education] Option and eventually left after two and a half months. Mandy moved on to Follow-through [the stage of NDYP once clients have been on an Option] where she was sanctioned for not completing her Option. The loss of benefit was very problematic for her, adding to her already mounting debt and her difficulty with managing money. This financial crisis led to her being evicted from her flat. After a short time of sleeping on various friend's [sic] floors, she moved in with her mother temporarily. At the time of interview, she was still there, but acknowledged that the situation was far from ideal. She was worried that if the relationship deteriorated again, she did not have anywhere else to go.
NDYP threatened to take Mandy's personal life to the edge of crisis. She was clearly already extremely vulnerable, and young women who ‘sleep rough’ easily fall prey to sexual exploitation. Mandy's admission to a hostel suggests this was recognised. However, once she was subject to NDYP this recognition apparently lapsed. She joined a course for which she was ill-prepared, perhaps under pressure from her PA. The withdrawal of her allowance as a sanction for leaving the Education Option (normally at a PA's discretion) presumably caused her to spend her housing benefit on immediate essentials, leading to rent arrears and eviction. This clearly upset a delicate balance that had begun to move her from vulnerability towards independence. In an attempt to hurry her progress, NDYP returned Mandy to the circumstances that put her on the streets.
From a neo-liberal interpretation, paradoxically, Mandy's history epitomises the benefits of welfare to work. It is because there are sanctions with painful consequences that NDYP promises success. Aged 16, Mandy was a dependent who had her own flat – a ‘perverse incentive’ her peers might envy and emulate. NDYP removed the artificial protection of unconditional welfare and exposed Mandy to work and the costs of independence. Her return to her mother's home would help her realise that it was rash to leave the course and lose the flat. The shock of the sanction is the PA's ‘tough love’ that should break Mandy's dependency. It is likely to have pushed her into low-paid work (meeting the economic-regulatory purpose) or study (meeting the personal-developmental purpose), and promised to discipline a supposedly disorderly life.
A neo-Marxist analysis takes a very different starting-point. Once she left home, Mandy had no means of subsistence. By making welfare conditional upon work, NDYP again put Mandy at risk of the depredations of street life. She was an exploited victim of an inequitable system whose economic relations either drive people like Mandy directly into low-paid work or require them to gain skills that later bind them to it. Her brief engagement with NDYP would probably have lowered her reservation wage. She was also apparently pushed towards a course for which she was not ready.
A job placement would have helped more with her debt problems. But as we saw, paradoxically, NDYP is least able to provide jobs where they are most needed. By initiating the sanction, Mandy's PA acted as a rule-following state agent, who seemingly had little regard for the counterproductive consequences of her actions. By triggering Mandy's eviction from her flat, the sanction escalated an understandable act of resistance into a personal crisis, returning her to live with her ‘estranged’ mother. This is characteristic of the contradictions of state welfare. In an effort to make welfare conditional on work for reasons of social discipline or economic regulation, vulnerable people are precipitated into the very crises that make the most costly demands on welfare.
Post-structuralist analyses offer differing readings of Mandy's experience. In a Foucauldian reading, the discourses of welfare to work employed by her PA have, in this case, been unable to move Mandy to inhabit the subject position of a working welfare-recipient, en route to becoming a self-governing, responsible worker-citizen. Her ‘personal’ has prompted her to refuse to be constituted in this way, because the discourses have not been able to override her dislike of the college course, or her problematic relationship with her mother. Though it may have been neither deliberate nor conscious, Mandy resisted the dominant discourses.
A reading based on post-structuralist theories of governmentality interprets Mandy's experiences differently. It sees the crisis that follows the withdrawal of her benefits as one episode in a continuing history of welfare interventions. In different ways, each intervention is part of a process of acting on Mandy's own autonomy as an actor – that is, of enabling Mandy to govern herself more effectively. The allocation of her own flat presupposed her freedom to shape her own life. Her PA will have worked to establish her interests, acknowledged her capacity to be responsible and aimed for the best match with placement options. This time, the intervention failed. As an autonomous agent, Mandy chose to quit the course. She may have done so in the knowledge that she would be sanctioned, but it is far from certain that she knew that this in turn would result in eviction. The programme governs its subjects through persuasion, but also through more coercive measures by withdrawing benefits. Mandy is being induced to govern herself both through steering by her PA, and by being put under financial pressure. Though this episode did not induce Mandy to govern herself in the way envisaged, it may be that she has learned the price of refusing ‘guidance’, and (as neo-liberals would also suggest) would act differently on a future occasion, out of self-interest.
Feminist analysis would emphasise Mandy's vulnerabilities as a very young woman, especially to male sexual exploitation and unwanted pregnancy. It would take up the hints that Mandy's mother is a lone parent, for whom bringing up a teenager may have been stressful. It would point out that the effects of treating families as the back-stop when welfare is withheld impact almost entirely on women. Marxist-feminists would see the actions of Mandy's PA as reproducing a gender-differentiated dual labour market, by steering her towards secretarial work and a subordinated labour market position. Post-structuralist feminists would draw attention to the absence from the account of Mandy's voice, and her mother's, and of details of their relationship. They would also remind us that we know nothing of her PA's working life in which she juggled the tensions between discipline and development, and between her own responses to Mandy and formal NDYP requirements. Without this information, interpretation is speculative.