TWO: Re-theorising conditional welfare as gendered lived experience and street-level practice

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This literature-based chapter offers a new feminist analysis of welfare conditionality that questions taken-for-granted ways of knowing about social security, benefit sanctions and support. It considers how academic conceptualisations of conditionality are implicitly gendered and highlights the ethics of care literature as an alternative way to understand interdependency and care of self and others. Insights from feminist interpretivism and the street-level bureaucracy literature reveal how women’s lives are mediated by welfare conditionality texts via front-line practices of profit-motivated service outsourcing and discretion. Smith’s approach is outlined to view social security in terms of textually mediated relations of ruling, highlighting the gendered hierarchy of ‘facts’, ‘boss texts’, ideology, the disjuncture between institutional categories and women’s lived experiences, and institutional circuits. A fresh model of UK welfare conditionality is presented, involving four textual layers: layer one consists of the domain assumptions and origin stories of policy texts; layer two is the legal and policy boss texts; layer three is the hidden institutional texts that preconfigure front-line practice; and layer four is comprised of the many policy instruments that operate at street-level.

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