Young social welfare users: Mandatory activities are ok, but benefit sanctions can feel unfair
Young people under the age of 30 who receive social assistance in Norway are now required to participate in work-related activities. Young people find the attendance requirement reasonable, but many find benefit sanctions unpredictable, according to a new study.
Everyone under the age of 30 is now required to participate in work-related activities to receive financial social assistance in Norway. If the welfare user fails to comply with the conditions, the benefit may be reduced.
The policy change came into effect in January 2017 after the Norwegian Parliament adopted mandatory activation in the Social Services Law.
How do the target group recipients feel about the requirement “to get up in the morning"?
And what do they think about receiving reduced benefits if they don’t come in one day?
Researchers at OsloMet interviewed 16 recipients between ages 19 and 29. They were recruited from four medium-sized Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) offices in southern Norway.
Good to have a place to go
Attendance is the clearest activity requirement and seems to be generally accepted among the young people.
Most benefit recipients find getting up in the morning and going somewhere social to be a positive thing. They think it's important to do something and feel useful.
They refer to the time before mandatory activation as ‘dead time,’ where they just sat at home, played games and were couch potatoes.
Participants shared their comments (their identities have been anonymized):
Peter is happy to get out. Brittany thinks it's great to meet people. John appreciates getting to know others.
Others like applying for jobs and what they’re learning, as well as having access to computers and printers.
Most people find the attendance requirement acceptable and expected, and think it is a fair enough bargain that they have to "show up" to receive financial aid benefits.
Peter thinks the attendance requirement promotes good attitudes and that not meeting is unacceptable. He points out that "sitting around and not participating in what’s required" isn’t going to get you a job.
About the research:
The researchers interviewed 16 young social welfare recipients between the ages of 19 and 29 about how they have experienced the new activity requirements.
Nine participants were men, seven were women. Three of the women cared for young children.
Some interviewees had completed upper secondary school, but had not found a job. Others had not completed secondary school, often due to dissatisfaction and difficulty in obtaining an apprenticeship.
For some, applying for social assistance was their first encounter with the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV). Others had early contact with child welfare services and later NAV. Some lived at home with a parent or relative, alone in a flat or with a roommate.
The participants were recruited from four medium-sized NAV offices in various municipalities in southern Norway.
The study was recently published in the Tidsskrift for velferdsforskning (Journal of Welfare Research). It was carried out by Anne Birgitte Leseth, Susana Vilhena and Heidi Moen Gjersøe at Oslo Met and VID Specialized University.
However, several of the recipients are critical of participating in the work-related activities.
Depends on the case manager
The attitude towards mandatory activities seems to be influenced by how the case managers treat the welfare users, such as whether clients are getting the follow-up they need or are going unnoticed by the supervisor.
Larry describes his relationship with his case manager as "horrible” and says, “If she can make things difficult for me, then she does. If she's there when I get to the NAV office, I turn around and leave. She just says, ‘It's not my responsibility to help you’.”
Stu says of his case manager, "She isn’t the type to look down on people and she doesn't belittle me. She puts herself in my situation and understands it.”
Peter describes the case managers as "cool and down to earth" and "very easy to talk to."
A good relationship with the case managers is important because numerous clients have had negative experiences with adults in the past.
Several of the clients found that the staff at the activity centres are friendlier and more informal than their NAV staff contacts.
A bit like kindergarten
Three of the NAV offices have their own municipal activity centres within walking distance of the offices. The fourth office offers participation in municipal projects or work training.
The routine is that the young people show up and get breakfast. They are not allowed to surf on their mobile phones during the meal. They don’t have to eat if they're not hungry.
Then they start their work-related activities, including reading job adverts, writing resumes, interview training, job searches, visits to workplaces or trips to fitness centres.
The activities can create a sense of belonging and trust in others.
Some of the participants however feel that it’s a bit like going to kindergarten.
If they call an employer or get a job, it’s a bit like a kid being rewarded with cake for doing something good, Peter thinks.
What are NEETs?
Young adults who are not employed, studying or in a training programme are called NEETs in international research. The acronym stands for ‘not in education, employment or training.’
The number of NEETs in Norway is among the lowest in the OECD. However, the country has a higher percentage than other countries of young people who have not completed high school and who are struggling with mental health problems.
Securing employment for this population group is a challenge because the Norwegian labour market places high demands on skilled labour.
Previous research shows that having knowledge of the recipient’s background and skills is critical in order for the mandatory activation required of young social benefit recipients to succeed.
Another person says it feels pointless to have to read job postings. "They’re just looking for doctors, it seems."
Sanctions are unpredictable
Lack of attendance or tardiness can lead to a decrease in benefits. The recipients are more sceptical about benefit sanctions than the required activities.
If you don’t show up by a certain time, usually nine, you generally only get paid for half a day.
However, the practice varies between NAV offices in terms of what conditions are set and how case managers handle non-compliance.
Some of the young people say you can be excused for arriving late if you call ahead to let the office know.
Benefit recipients find that the case managers and employees make a lot of exceptions to the rules on different grounds. The clients never know if they’ll be penalized or just get a warning, and so they perceive sanctions as unpredictable.
If welfare user don’t show up for a whole day and don’t let anyone know, they lose a whole day’s pay.
John has been penalized several times. He thinks it’s a drag, but says, "I think it's fair. You shouldn’t get something for nothing."
Not everyone agrees. Owen says it’s not fair to be docked half a day’s pay if he’s ten minutes late. "Then you sort of think, ‘why should I come at all?’” he says.
Motivating for change
The NAV offices used to be able to impose activity conditions for welfare users, but they weren't required to do so.
The change to the law is intended to set activity requirements for granting financial benefits to individuals under the age of 30, except in extenuating circumstances.
The government felt that mandatory activation would strengthen young people’s possibilities for entering working life. The goal was also to motivate and influence passive recipients to overcome difficult life situations.
This new policy is based on the idea that activation requirements are necessary to help people become self-sufficient.
Challenging to provide meaningful activities
The jury is still out on whether mandatory activation succeeds in transitioning more people into employment. Studies from the UK have shown that people who are required to meet activity requirements have poor health and feel shame, guilt or fear to a greater extent than others.
The experience in Norway is less clear.
Mandatory activation leads to better follow-up of young welfare users, but at the same time, providing meaningful activity to a complex group is a challenge for the NAV offices, according to a 2019 study.
Social assistance recipients report that they do not feel stigmatized by the activity requirements in Norway. The reason may be that caseworkers in NAV who work with welfare benefits take a broader therapeutic approach to the client when setting requirements.
Short distance from help to unreasonable sanctions
Mandatory activities create ambiguous experiences for young people in their encounter with the state's final economic safety net, the researchers write.
The experience of receiving help can quickly shift to experiencing unreasonable sanctions.
The researchers believe the authorities and professionals need to be aware of this fine line in their efforts to help young people in Norway who are striving to manage their lives more independently.
This recommendation is in line with research from other countries showing that NAV employees' implementation of sanctions on the mandatory activities can be confusing to benefit recipients.
Translated by Ingrid P. Nuse
A. B. Leseth, S. Vilhena and H. M. Gjersøe: The Inside and Outside of Mandatory Activation: Young Benefit Recipients’ Experiences with Mandatory Activation in Norway. Tidsskrift for velferdsforskning [Journal of Welfare Research], 2/2020. 23 June 2020.