25 Sep 19 | News

LISER researchers convened a stream on ‘social assistance and activation’ at the 2019 ESPAnet Conference

Researchers from all over Europe exchanged research results on the various dimensions of social assistance schemes

September 5-7, LISER actively participated in the 2019  European Network for Social Policy Analysis (ESPAnet) Conference which took place in Stockholm, Sweden.  The conference gathered roughly 300 academics from various disciplines and European countries with the aim of discussing the grand social challenges of our times: migration, social protection and equality. The research presented at the conference stems from the need to learn about each other European welfare states and develop new perspectives on possible welfare policy to address those challenges.

In line with the conference goals, LISER researchers Alessio Fusco, Silvia Girardi and Philippe Van Kerm (also a Professor of Social Inequality and Social Policy at the University of Luxembourg) took the lead to organise a stream to foster the debate on social assistance programs and the role of activation as tools of social protection. The initiative emanates from the FNR-funded research project IMeRSE  which currently examines reliance on social assistance in Luxembourg.

Social assistance constitutes the last income support that European welfare states have at their disposal to support their citizens from destitution. Social assistance programs (e.g. minimum income schemes) have gained increasing relevance in the last decades to support citizens’ incomes in the light of social and economic transformations of European societies. At the same time, their income protection function has been increasingly challenged by a growing conditionality for working-age individuals to take part in activation and workfare schemes (e.g. working in exchange for welfare support). This makes it of paramount importance to understand how current social assistance schemes are able to pursue their social protection goal (thus guarantee citizens’ sufficient means to make ends meet) while promoting work and employment through activation policies.

The stream on social assistance and activation was articulated around three sessions which included fourteen contributions from researchers from all over Europe. The contributions revolved around two complementary aspects for understanding social policy functioning: the mechanisms and the impact of social assistance transfers and activation in the context of minimum income schemes.

Some of the contributions focussed on how those policies are implemented on the ground, the role of street-level bureaucrats in the implementation of activation and the struggle to provide adequate support with inadequate funding. Other contributions focussed on the consequences of implementing activation policies within social assistance both in terms of the length of the support provided to the beneficiaries, their employment prospects and broader social outcomes. The presentations also took in consideration and discussed that social assistance beneficiaries' peculiar characteristics and structural factors, and not activation alone, affect labour market and social outcomes.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, no simple unified picture springs from the research presented during those three days; the policy instruments and contexts of different countries and institutional backgrounds make generalisations hazardous. It emerges however that the general vulnerability and low employability of the populations concerned by social assistance schemes generally limit the effectiveness of activation policies and that those policies, when having a compulsory and sanctioning nature, could even have counterproductive implications on individuals’ social and health conditions.  This means that societies should accept the necessity (and the cost) of providing safety nets and income support with limited conditionality. Besides social assistance, upstream policies addressing factors that lead individuals to precarious situations should also be regarded as fundamental to effectively address the social protection of citizens in our societies.

Deaprtment Living Conditions
Alessio Fusco, Silvia Girardi and Philippe Van Kerm