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

TitleWeighing up work willingness in social assistance: a balancing act on multiple levels
Publication TypeInternational peer-reviewed journal article
AuthorsDe Wilde, M., & Marchal S.
Year of PublicationIn Press
JournalEuropean Sociological Review

In all European countries, social assistance legislation specifies that the receipt of benefits is conditional upon the willingness to work. Nevertheless, the manner in which such policies are implemented in practice has remained a black box. From the literature on social policy, social work and social administration, we know that implementation is the result of decisions at multiple levels. To our knowledge, however, this study is the first to quantitative attempt to bring together the insights from these various strands of literature into a combined assessment of factors that determine willingness-to-work willingness assessments at each level. We build on an innovative and purpose-designed factorial survey of social workers in Belgium. We identified factors determining the perceptions of 584 case managers, clustered in 89 municipalities, with regard to sanction decisions upon job refusal by benefit recipients, based on almost 5000 experimentally varied client cases (i.e. a vignette experiment). These unique data make it possible to distinguish between the effects of case managers who assess individual cases and characteristics of the local welfare agencies and municipalities in which they operate. The results reveal relatively little variation between municipalities, which can be largely explained by characteristics of the municipalities (e.g. political ideology and organisational setting). Surprisingly, however, we find extensive variation at the case-manager level. Although some of this variation remains unexplained, a substantial share can be explained by characteristics of individual case managers (e.g. age and attitudes concerning the welfare state). This finding raises concerns about the unintended consequences of the broad discretion granted to case managers within contemporary social assistance schemes.

KeywordsSocial policy implementation; discretion; devolution; social assistance; willingness to work; activation; factorial survey; vignette study
Citation Key6424
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