Welfare states support vulnerable citizens by means of different types of social policy. Examples include unemployment and pension benefits, and social assistance schemes. Since the early development of the welfare state, the communality in all these different policies was that their beneficiaries tended to support the various programmes. In fact, research finds that individuals fearing a job loss are especially supportive of generous unemployment schemes, while women favour family-related services and the poor welcome strongly redistributive policies.

However, over the last three decades we have witnessed the diffusion of labour market policies that break with these traditional public support patterns and change the relationship between need/risk and support for the policy intervention in question.

During the last three decades, so-called active labour market policies (ALMPs) have been diffused widely and lastingly across OECD countries as the measures of choice to fight steadily rising unemployment rates. But, while some of these measures provide support for the unemployed, for instance, by providing further education and counselling (“enabling policies”), others aim at increasing the pressure on the unemployed to re-access the labour market swiftly. These “demanding” measures in particular seem to prevail in the long run. Examples of such measures include sanctions (generally consisting of benefit cuts) imposed on individuals who refuse to accept a job – because it is, for example, less well paid or involves long commuting times – as well as strict job-search monitoring schemes, etc.

Conventional wisdom suggests that ALMPs should be supported by individuals at risk of unemployment as these measures foster their labour market integration. However, considering the nature of these demanding measures, this does not seem straightforward. This is why in this contribution I address the question “who supports demanding measures and why?”

To answer this question empirically, I have relied on approximately 6,500 responses that were collected in 2010 through an online survey on labour-market policy-related issues in France, German, Italy, the UK and Switzerland.

The main finding of the study is that those individuals who should benefit from demanding ALMPs, i.e. the unemployed, strongly disagree with these measures. In other words, it is not the beneficiaries of these welfare programmes that support them, but rather those individuals who are least likely to be affected by unemployment, namely employed individuals with high incomes.

An alternative explanation of individual preferences that was put to empirical test proposes that support for demanding measures is based on ideological preferences. Plausibly, these ALMPs should be favoured by a broad coalition of right-oriented individuals who, independent of their labour market position, attribute unemployment to moral hazard, of the unemployed and thus requiring conditionality and sanctions.

However, this alternative approach does not fully explain attitudes towards conditional ALMPs. In fact, the results indicate that risk exposure (unemployment) overpowers the political ideology of a person as employed right-leaning individuals have substantially more favourable attitudes towards demanding ALMPs than their unemployed counterparts.

In the current era of economic instability and immigration, labour market vulnerability will remain high on European countries’ agendas. This is likely to also be true for welfare state reforms, particularly those pushing welfare programmes away from being non-demanding and unconditional towards policies heavily based on demands and conditionality. For future research, it will be important to consider the differences in the “terms and conditions” of ALMPs as well as social policy more widely, both to pinpoint the political determinants behind these reforms and to better understand their social consequences.

Read Fossati’s full Journal of Social Policy article on this topic here: Who Wants Demanding Active Labour Market Policies? Public Attitudes towards Policies that put Pressure on the Unemployed

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