Alternatives to punitive workfare systems: evidence from the Parisian suburbs

LUWCollins010317-1874- 27
Dr Charles Umney, University of Leeds

Charles Umney, Ian Greer and Lisa Schulte reflect on their research into differential approaches to addressing social exclusion in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of Paris.

Across Europe mainstream recipes for combatting poverty and social exclusion have failed. A recent Eurostat report put it this way:

The EU has not made any progress towards achieving its ‘Europe 2020’ social inclusion target, adopted in 2010, of lifting at least 20 million people from poverty and social exclusion by 2020.

This has happened as governments – British, German, and Nordic alike – have cut cash benefits and support services while rolling out strict job-search requirements and withdrawal of social benefits for noncompliance: all measures which were supposed to, in the UK government’s language, ‘make work pay’. Evidence mounts, however, that the people who are actually made to pay by these kinds of policies are the vulnerable groups they push into destitution.

‘Work-first’ social policy reflects an international consensus that is influenced by US-style workfare. It emphasises a more coercive and punitive approach to welfare recipients, the use of for-profit contractors to deliver welfare-to-work services, and market-based funding systems emphasising payment-by-results and more standardised service models. But as we have found from our field research in Seine-Saint-Denis, the relatively deprived banlieues North-East of Paris, there are holdouts against this drift toward workfare.

We examined insertion (‘integration’) services. This term denotes specific social services targeted at vulnerable groups (such as recovering drug addicts, single parents, young people from ‘sensitive urban areas’), with the aim not just of finding them a job, but also for helping to meet their wider needs such as secure housing or accessing welfare entitlements. In Seine-Saint-Denis – our fieldwork site – these services were delivered by a complex network of specialised small organisations, for-profit enterprises and charities. They offered traditional kinds of social work and had added employment-related training and employer-engagement schemes, aimed at specific groups of clients. Public funders stabilised this network through a preference for funding incumbent organisations on the ground, rather than creating an open market with commercial work-first provision. We interviewed front-line staff in various organisations charged with delivering welfare-to-work services (public, private or non-profit) as well as the funding organisations with whom they worked, examining up-close the business of delivering insertion services and the street-level consequences of policy change.

Provision of services for the unemployed by private for-profit organisations are controversial in France. But attempts have been made to expand the role of large for-profit enterprises: Multinational firms such as Australian-based Ingeus and Yorkshire-based A4e have sought to establish commercial provision, and also larger nonprofits such as Groupe SOS have emerged as vocal critics of the ‘small is beautiful’ ethos in French social services. In the new President, Emmanuel Macron, such organisations will likely find a highly sympathetic ear. Indeed, Macron’s party, En Marche!, has promised to:

encourage cooperation and mergers which will allow businesses in the Economie Sociale et Solidaire [i.e. nonprofits] to insert themselves into the value chain, to change scale to “better” respond to social and environmental needs, and to respond to the requirements of public orders, notably in terms of volume.

Our findings indicate that such a change of scale might be a disservice to those who need support the most.

While Pôle emploi (the French equivalent of Job Centre Plus) has adopted some of these characteristics, the employment services targeted specifically at disadvantaged populations continue to operate very differently. These services are usually provided by smaller non-profits which do not have the power or inclination to sanction service users. Front-line staff tend to approach their work with the ethos of social work, and service users’ progression through different organisations is handled by long-established informal contacts between associations rather than competitive contracting between government and firms.

In Seine-Saint-Denis we asked: why do these kinds of systems for these kinds of service users remain strong in France, while they have been integrated into workfare-type systems in many other countries?

One part of the explanation is that the people involved in delivering these services – i.e. those charged with overseeing the implementation of public policy at ‘street level’  — see obvious advantages to the insertion approach. It means that local services evolve in tandem with local needs, and interventions are adapted to problems that they observe on the ground, rather than being purely determined by the priorities of national policymakers. Staff in insertion providers can provide a more tailored and in-depth service to individual service users. Under these circumstances a much less coercive and sanctions-centric approach to service users becomes possible and the undesirable consequences of for-profit provision are mitigated, such as ‘creaming and parking’, where front-line staff systematically focus effort on the least needy.

The resilience of this landscape can be seen in the attempts to impose greater private provision through initiatives such as the Sarkozy-era contrat d’autonomie. For-profit organisations have found it difficult to enter this terrain. To recruit service users, they needed to penetrate the pre-existing network of providers, but there was often suspicion that an organisation with a profit motive will not share the ethos of the insertion network.

In Britain, such resistance has been overcome through authoritarian and centralising means: central government extending its authority over local welfare-to-work networks, marginalising existing networks and forcing through the entry of large multinational for-profit organisations. The abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and regional Learning and Skills Councils, along with severe cuts to local authority budgets reinforced this centralisation trend. As a result, services for the unemployed are increasingly the domain either of Jobcentres or large firms, with local customised services on the decline.

In France, by contrast, local control has been maintained, protecting insertion providers. The Pôle emploi – which is responsible for enforcing job-search requirements for the unemployed – is only one player among many in local networks of funders, planners, and providers that carry out insertion. In some regions, it is local government rather than the Pôle emploi that pays the minimum out-of-work benefit. This administrative fragmentation enhances local control, thereby reducing the state’s capacity to implement harsh workfare policies.

It remains to be seen how insertion will fare under Macron, who has a clear preference for neoliberal international policy orthodoxies. But greater private provision and a more sanctions-centred approach would be both difficult and counterproductive. To forcibly marginalise non-profit insertion networks the French state would have to reverse its long-term shift towards decentralization, and this disruption would jettison what is good about insertion and replace it with a model which has, in other countries, inflicted large amounts of misery on vulnerable people. If Macron is serious about ‘reforming’ French welfare-to-work systems in this direction, the result is likely to be a lot of pain for negligible gain. However, it would be a neat parallel of the wider package of austerity measures that have been imposed across European economies more generally in the last decade.

For the wider world, insertion offers an under-appreciated alternative to the largely failed project of marketised workfare systems. They also provide a reminder that public policies are to a large extent made at the street level, and that any policy to punish the poor will need to go hand-in-hand with the extensive state-led reordering of public services and the marginalisation of professional staff on the front line.

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