Social assistance and activation in the pursuit of happiness: Shedding new light on old policy solutions to social exclusion

Marina Petrovic , Maastricht Graduate School of Governance

Alienated and excluded population groups have a long history and still persist in every modern society. Their members often feel ruthlessly marginalized with little hope for the future. The problems associated with social exclusion can often be traced to circumstances such as medical disabilities, broken families, prevalence of drugs and crime, on the one hand, and deep poverty, unemployment, or racial discrimination on the other. Despite professed social inclusion goals, many European countries have not been effective in responding to the root problems linked to impoverishment and joblessness. The response would need to be predominantly active and geared at facilitating people’s greater integration into the society. The relationship between financial wellbeing, jobs, and social inclusion is however neither straightforward nor direct. The aim of this thesis is to disentangle these relationships and show how government support in providing opportunities to succeed in life can help reduce social exclusion and increase social inclusion. More specifically, the study explores to what extent activation polices, such as training and employment, implemented within the scope of government-run social assistance programs yield better social inclusion outcomes.

Fighting social exclusion and increasing social inclusion has reached the top of policy agendas in the European Union (EU) towards the end of the nineties and beyond its borders in the post-2000 period. This development overlapped with the move from treating poverty solely as income insufficiency to include other economic, social, cultural and political dimensions in the discussion. In terms of government policy responses, the majority of newly designed social inclusion measures were developed in relation to poverty and work. One important type of policy, the traditional social assistance program providing passive support in the form of cash transfers, had to be reshaped and complemented with stronger work activation requirements to underpin the growing social inclusion agenda. This “new generation” social assistance was not principally different from work-oriented forms of social assistance that have been practiced in the past. The objectives have certainly changed.

The idea of work-oriented social assistance originates in the Poor Law created in nineteenth century England. The poor were required to labor in workhouses in order to receive poverty relief benefits (Lodemel & Trickey, 2000). While work orientation was, more or less, retained in many schemes over time, modern social assistance systems have generally changed by increasing the work requirements along with providing opportunities for the able-bodied adults to become involved in education and training. This shift could be partially explained as a consequence of significant budget constraints and pressures to increase benefit levels, and pressure to confront the issue of welfare dependency. From the political and economic perspective, welfare-to-work types of policies appeared to be more acceptable than traditional benefit reductions. These policies were more inclusionary and at the same time they were not expected to increase welfare caseloads, benefit levels, or to encourage dependency. In many countries the introduction of different kinds of activation measures occurred in concert with the changing composition of social assistance recipients in favor of migrants and younger populations. It is still assumed that providing these groups with more opportunities in the labor market increases their chances for greater integration in
the society. The aim of this research is to look into these integration goals and overall social inclusion outcomes.

Date: 05 December 2013

Time: 14:00 - 15:30