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In the UK, a dominant narrative operates to stereotype and stigmatise out-of-work benefit claimants as inactive welfare dependents who require activation if they are to enter paid employment and behave responsibly. Drawing upon a small-scale qualitative longitudinal study into lived experiences of welfare reform, this paper explores how out-of-work claimants respond to this dominant narrative. The paper illustrates the reach of benefits stigma, and the strategies adopted by claimants to manage such stigma: most notably via an ‘othering’ of those deemed less deserving. It is argued that this ‘othering’ is best understood as an admittedly defensive form of citizenship engagement.

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This chapter outlines the rationale behind conducting repeat interviews with out-of-work benefit claimants in an effort to better understand lived experiences of welfare reform. It introduces readers to the political and theoretical context, and highlights the value in employing social citizenship as a theoretical lens in order to tease out citizenship from above and below. The recent context of welfare reform in the UK is also introduced, highlighting the extent to which successive rounds of welfare reform have cumulatively reworked the relationship between the citizen and the state. The research on which this book is based is detailed, and the value in working through and across time by taking a qualitative longitudinal approach highlighted.

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This chapter introduces those interviewed for the book, and details their past and present lives, as well as their aspirations and hopes for the future. It describes the ‘work’ that ‘getting by’ on benefits entails, which includes tight budgeting, making hard choices, going without, and sometimes having to shoplift for basic necessities. This chapter also highlights the forms of socially valuable contribution in which many of the participants were engaged, a counter to David Cameron’s depiction of claimants ‘sitting on the sofa waiting for their benefit cheques to arrive’. Further, this chapter discusses the aspirations of individuals, and how individuals often hoped for a future in paid work, and where they could feel ordinary and secure. Overall, this chapter begins the work of detailing lived experiences – citizenship from below – and in so doing challenges the dominant citizenship narrative from above.

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This chapter focuses on individuals’ experiences of welfare reform, and how changes to benefits are anticipated, experienced and reflected upon. Reforms detailed include changes to disability benefits, the intensification and extension of welfare conditionality, and the marked increase in the use of benefit sanctions. These changes are ongoing, and examining their impact and how they are experienced thus has an ongoing relevance and timeliness. This chapter details the ‘work’ and ‘costs’ associated with welfare reform, highlighting the extent to which together these constitute the significant ‘burden’ caused by benefit changes. Further, the ways in which welfare conditionality sometimes leads to perverse consequences is detailed – showing that conditionality and sanctions can impede rather than aid transitions from welfare to work.

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This chapter provides an update on nine of the participants from the research, who were interviewed for a fourth time in the summer of 2016. These interviews – which stretched the whole research period to five years – provided an opportunity to explore most recent responses to welfare reform, and levels of engagement with paid employment. They reveal diverse trajectories, which all seem to pivot around the central place of employment in individual lives (whether as an aspiration or everyday reality). These various trajectories are explored, and key themes to emerge from the 2016 interviews detailed. These encompass the shortcomings with welfare-to-work support, the persistence of poverty, responses to Poverty Porn and dynamic experiences of benefits stigma.

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This chapter reflects upon how out-of-work benefit claimants see both themselves and others in a time of welfare reform, and discusses the pervasive reach and consequences of benefits stigma. It details the widespread evidence of individuals’ critiquing their own benefits receipt, often seeming to have internalised and adopted the negative, moralising rhetoric around ‘welfare’. It illustrates the ways in which the process of claiming benefits is today imbued in stigma and shame. This chapter also describes how individuals rejected the popular notion of benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’ having an applicability to their individual case, while at the same time frequently seeing it as having meaning for some ‘other’ judged to be less deserving of ‘welfare’. This ‘othering’ is described as a form of – admittedly very defensive – citizenship engagement and claim making. The ways in which such ‘othering’ reduces the scope for a more solidaristic challenge to the status quo is considered, as is its impact on individuals’ attitudes to (and often support for) welfare reform.

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This chapter details the relevance of social citizenship to debates and questions of social welfare, and introduces the theoretical terrain of republican and liberal theories of citizenship. The classic work of T H Marshall is summarised, and the value of contrasting and comparing citizenship from above with citizenship as it is lived and experienced from below discussed. The chapter also provides a detailed examination of the citizenship thinking evident in recent UK governments, spanning from New Labour to the Coalition. This examination highlights the common reliance on contractual models of social citizenship, with a linked emphasis on paid employment as the primary duty of the responsible citizen. Recent developments such as an emphasis on the citizenship contract between the ‘welfare dependent’ and the ‘hard working taxpayer’ are also explored, discussing their likely implications for citizenship in/exclusion.

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This chapter explores experiences of paid employment, and in particular the employment journeys of participants during the time of the research. This is contextualised by a discussion of their previous employment experiences, and the extent (and nature) of their employment-related aspirations. Experiences in and out of work include encountering the low-pay, no-pay cycle, being exploited by employers and efforts to find work, but without success. This chapter also explores experiences of policy interventions designed to help people to make the transition from welfare-to-work, particularly via the Work Programme and engagement with Job Centre Plus. Individuals’ – often very critical – reflections on their engagement with these programmes and agencies is discussed, leading to a questioning of whether the promise of meaningful work-related ‘support’ is in fact forthcoming.

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This concluding chapter summarises the central argument of this book: that there is a considerable disjunct between citizenship from above, and citizenship as it is lived and experienced from below. The citizenship consequences of this disjunct are discussed, and the implications for the future social in/exclusion of those who rely on benefits for all or most of their income. Further, this chapter considers whether a call for greater social citizenship rights is still a pertinent and effective one, or whether instead social citizenship has been co-opted by the dominant work-based citizenship narrative from above. Although citizenship’s original emancipatory intent has been subverted by recent governments, there remains scope in calls for genuine and meaningful social inclusion and social rights that offer protection and support to all citizens. Here, there is particular potential in a focus on social security as a mechanism for addressing the pervasive insecurity that characterises everyday life. Policy makers also need to listen much more closely to those with the ‘expertise by experience’ that comes with living with poverty and welfare reform, and these voices need to be better incorporated into political and public debates.

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The Everyday Realities of Welfare Reform
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What does day-to-day life involve for those who receive out-of-work benefits? Is the political focus on moving people from ‘welfare’ and into work the right one? And do mainstream political and media accounts of the ‘problem’ of ‘welfare’ accurately reflect lived realities?

For whose benefit? The everyday realities of welfare reform explores these questions by talking to those directly affected by recent reforms. Ruth Patrick interviewed single parents, disabled people and young jobseekers on benefits repeatedly over five years to find out how they experienced the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and whether the welfare state still offers meaningful protection and security in times of need. She reflects on the mismatch between the portrayal of ‘welfare’ and everyday experiences, and the consequences of this for the UK’s ongoing welfare reform programme.

Exploring issues including the meaning of dependency, the impact of benefit sanctions and the reach of benefits stigma, this important book makes a timely contribution to ongoing debates about the efficacy and ethics of welfare reform.

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