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  • Author or Editor: Sharon Wright x
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This chapter aims to provide a microlevel analysis of the unemployment policy that assesses the significance, extent, and character of change. This analysis uses the perspectives of frontline staff and unemployed service users as a basis. The chapter is composed of two main parts. The first part focuses on the changes, based on the perspective of frontline staff. It is focused on how the changes in the late 1990s affected them in their daily work with service users. The second part considers reform from the perspective of unemployed users, and is focused on the language shift via the formal redefinition of welfare subjects such as ‘customers’.

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This first empirical chapter demonstrates how welfare conditionality rewrites older women’s lives according to male-defined working norms. The focus is on the cohort of working-class baby-boomers born in the 1950s who began working in the 1960s/70s when gender discrimination and unequal pay were legal. Their high risk of poverty during the 2010s and 2020s is both a hangover from their unprotected years of employment and due to the pension gap created when the state retirement age was raised. The prevailing social norm for that generation involved career gaps for motherhood, periods of part-time employment and a secondary role for women’s earnings in heterosexual households. Anne’s story demonstrates how shameful sanctions can be and shows how retirement has been rewritten as work experience. Karen’s story illustrates how changing legal expectations about work and care are experienced over a life course. Karen’s lived experiences of Universal Credit and the Work Programme demonstrate how retirement is redefined as unemployment and punitive conditionality is applied in practice. June’s story illustrates how disability is redefined as unemployment for older women. The interdependent nature of supporting family and being supported is considered in relation to meeting conditionality requirements. Tensions between work and care are discussed.

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This chapter summarises the contributions of each of the chapters of the book to demonstrate the importance of listening to women’s lived experiences of work and welfare conditionality. It highlights the interdependency of women’s lives, which were often tightly intertwined with the lives of other family members, particularly their children’s. The falsely individualised design of welfare conditionality and sanctions was irreconcilable with family realities. Both the causes and impacts of sanctions were interdependent with others. The chapter overviews developments in welfare conditionality policy and practice since 2018, including temporary measures during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Key ongoing issues are highlighted, including the need to: account for the true extent of unpaid care; remove in-work conditionality; and permit benefit recipients to undertake voluntary and paid work without conditionality or sanctions. Policy recommendations are made.

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Lived Experiences of Benefit Sanctions, Work and Welfare
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Recent welfare reforms, based on austerity narratives and a gender-neutral rationale, have failed to recognise the ways in which women and men experience the different demands and rewards of paid employment and unpaid care.

This book draws on a wealth of qualitative longitudinal evidence to cast light on women’s lived experiences of welfare and work. Giving voice to social security recipients, this book uncovers the hidden gendered bias of conditional welfare reforms to challenge dominant political discourses, policy design and practice norms.

It combines and develops three interdisciplinary perspectives – feminist analysis, lived experience and street-level bureaucracy – to offer a new understanding of British welfare reform policies and practice.

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This third and final empirical chapter explores the majority experience of conditionality – the background knowledge of punitive conditionality, empty sanctions threats and one-off sanctions. Warnings and solitary penalties may seem like lesser versions of the crushing experience of repeat sanctions, but the menacing ubiquity of conditionality was insidious and deeply harmful. Widespread fear of sanctions was found among interviewees, even among those who had never been sanctioned. Dread of sanctions was accompanied with a strong sense of injustice and many of the interviewees felt that the system conspired against them because they had not been informed of appointments that they were later warned about or punished for missing. The consequences, as well as the causes, of sanctions were interdependent. Mothers faced risks of occasional sanctions because of their children’s illnesses. When mothers were sanctioned as a one-off, there was an amplified impact on their children. Connections were found between threat of sanctions and domestic violence, financial abuse and survival sex.

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This chapter establishes the importance of understanding how welfare conditionality impacts on women. Welfare conditionality is defined and the rise in work-related social-security policy is set out. Dorothy Smith’s ideas are used to cast light on gendered experiences of work-related conditionality. Smith was a Canadian feminist sociologist who compared women’s actual lived experiences, situated within their local contexts, with the policy-related texts that mediate their lives. This approach is used to interpret conditional welfare reforms and their impacts, throughout the book. The book is based on a subset of 138 women claiming working-age social-security benefits, who took part in three waves of the ESRC Welfare Conditionality qualitative longitudinal study.

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This chapter charts the turnaround in expectations about women’s work enshrined in social-security legislation over the course of the last century. It shows how legal requirements about paid employment and unpaid domestic obligations have structured women’s lives in changing ways. It identifies enduring gender inequalities in the paid labour market and unpaid care. Ongoing vertical and horizontal occupational segregation reinforce low pay. Women continue to need part-time work during care-dominated phases of the life course like childrearing and elder care. Early interventions and the post-war development of social security were based on gender differences. However, women’s employment patterns and welfare rights have changed in phases. New Labour (1997–2010) began the process of redefining lone parents as workers but also introduced measures to address low pay, child poverty and childcare shortages. Devolved forms of social security took shape in Scotland. Post-2010 Conservative-led cuts and reforms within an ‘austerity’ narrative took a more punitive turn. Welfare conditionality and benefit sanctions became ubiquitous within Universal Credit. These shifts have major consequences for older women workers subject to changes in the state retirement age. Many women are compelled to work in circumstances constrained by care. The rise of punitive welfare conditionality has created a new sanctionable worker-mother subject to degendered work obligations.

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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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This second empirical chapter demonstrates the irreconcilable differences between welfare conditionality and the everyday realities of women’s family lives. It tells the stories of women who experienced crushing forms of conditionality – those who were sanctioned 2–5 times and 6 or more times within the 12-month period leading up to their first research interview. Sarah’s experiences of being sanctioned as a disabled in-work Universal Credit claimant illustrate how conditionality displaces adult kin care. Helen’s story of being sanctioned as a disabled ESA Support Group claimant participating voluntarily in the Work Programme demonstrates some injustices of system design, the challenge of wanting to work while in pain and supporting her brother. Jo fell foul of excessive job-search expectations on Jobseeker’s Allowance. Mira experienced in-work racism that was reinforced by out-of-work sanctions. Mira is part of the cohort of lone parents shifted from Income Support to Jobseeker’s Allowance post-2010, who were hammered by sanctions as soon as they were exposed to job-search requirements. Their sanctions were almost always irrational, unjust and unrelated to work efforts.

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Having their roots in the welfare to work policies of the USA and being embraced more recently by European member states, active labour market policies have become increasingly popular. A widespread trend towards active labour market policies as a response to unemployment has been identified (e.g. Clasen 1999). Ofien, the impact of these policies have been evaluated at a macro level. By contrast, with the premise that ‘policies cannot be understood in isolation fiom the means of their execution’ (Elmore 1978:185), this chapter provides a micro-level analysis. The emphasis is on how decision-making and service delivery are accomplished in practice, by individuals and through social processes.

Active labour market policies are implemented by front-line staff through their interactions with clients. Accordingly, the chapter adopts a street-level bureaucracy perspective and is based on ethnographic research consisting of direct observation during 74 visits to one Jobcentre in the UK and on an analysis of interviews between staff and clients, informal interviews with 48 members of staff and semi-structured interviews with 35 unemployed people1. Documents such as staff guidance materials were also analysed. In the first part of the chapter, issues of policy implementation will be outlined and the pressures which front-line Jobcentre staff experience will be discussed. This is followed by three examples which demonstrate some of the ways in which Employment Officers re-create official policy. The fvst example demonstrates how front-line staff develop routines to deal with the pressures which fortnightly ‘Signing On’ interviews present. The second illustrates how staff reacted to a new policy, the New Deal for 18-24 year olds, and the third highlights the way staff behaviour was modified in response to performance targets for job placements.

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