Better welfare benefits through more autonomy, positive attention and wider earning opportunities
What is the best way to guide people on social assistance towards participation or paid work? Researchers from Utrecht University followed social assistance claimants in Utrecht and Zeist during the project Weten wat werkt (What Works) for sixteen months. Participants were randomly assigned to a 'control group' which received the regular treatment and three treatment groups, each of which received a different treatment: more autonomy, extra help and guidance from the local welfare agency or the opportunity to keep a larger share of income earned on top of their benefits.
‘There is potential for improvement' concludes researcher Timo Verlaat: 'We see positive effects in all three treatment groups, but they are not always the same effects. The question of what is most important is basically a political choice. More autonomy, positive attention and wider earning opportunities seem to be adjustments that are worth pursuing. Taking into account the favorable reception from participants and caseworkers, as well as the (slightly) positive effects for the municipality and the national government, it seems a win-win for all parties involved to reconsider the welfare legislation in this direction.
The study was conducted as a field experiment (or: randomised controlled trial). This means that participants were randomly assigned to different research groups, one of which – the so-called control group – was subject to the regular rules and regulations in social assistance. Thanks to the random assignment, the groups are comparable with each other and effects that occur can be attributed to a different treatment. The researchers are delighted that in this way they can contribute to evidence-based policy, policy that is not based on assumptions but on scientific evidence.
Increased labour market participation through the interventions
In which way were participants treated differently and what are the results?
- Participants in the group Autonomously in action received an exemption from the obligation to find and accept paid work, and were free to choose whether or not they wanted to be counselled by the municipality’s welfare agency.
- The approach in the group With extra help in action was aimed at extra help and guidance, among other things, through the deployment of permanent caseworkers, more room for manoeuvre for caseworkers, additional tools and programmes, and more contact between caseworker and client.
- In the group Work pays off, participants were allowed to keep a larger part of their income from work as extra income on top of their benefits and to do so for a longer period of time.
- Measuring what works was the name of the control group, for which the current laws and regulations and the prevailing method of counselling remained unchanged.
In all three treatments groups, the researchers found positive results that indicate increased labour participation. What stood out:
- More autonomy for claimants as well as more room for manoeuvre and time for caseworkers lead to positive effects on several dimensions.
- The effect of a financial incentive (Work pays off) is limited to one dimension, that is to more small jobs.
- More autonomy for claimants increases the chance of a permanent contract.
- The treatments With extra help in action as well as Autonomously in action work particularly well for those with lower levels of education. Claimants who are at a greater distance from the labour market almost exclusively benefit from With extra help in action.
What works - in short (in Dutch)
A favorable reception from participants and caseworkers, as well as the (slightly) positive effects for the municipality and the national government.
‘There is potential for improvement' concludes researcher Timo Verlaat: 'We see positive effects in all three treatment groups, but they are not always the same effects. The question of what is most important is basically a political decision. For example, whether one places importance on people exiting welfare benefits completely or rather on (part-time) participating in the labour market or contributing to society in another way. And how important is the satisfaction of the caseworkers? We find positive results, but there are still differences between the groups.'
More autonomy, positive attention and wider opportunities to earn extra money seem to be adjustments that are worth pursuing. Taking into account the favorable reception from participants and caseworkers, as well as the (slightly) positive effects for the municipality and the national government, it seems a win-win for all parties involved to reconsider the welfare legislation in this direction.
Caseworkers seem more satisfied with different approach
Caseworkers also seem more satisfied with a different approach to social assistance. When asked, they indicated that they enjoyed having more responsibility and more room for their own creativity. During the study, clients in the group with extra guidance had a permanent caseworker that counselled them and the caseworkers in this group had far fewer clients. This combination of factors provided caseworkers with room to interpret their work differently and to experience it differently.
‘If you are not a permanent caseworker, you have to get to know clients again and again; you don't know what happened before but you also don't know what happens after. As a permanent caseworker you supervise your clients for a longer period of time and you also experience successes,' Verlaat explains. ‘It gives a lot of satisfaction to your work when you see that someone has made progress or has been able to do something with your advice.’
Verlaat does add a comment to this observation: 'We have to realise: these caseworkers were not chosen randomly, they volunteered for supervising this group. Would we now oblige all caseworkers to work like this it might have other effects, as there may also be caseworkers who would rather not work like this'.
Doesn't the same also apply to the participating social assistance claimants? After all, they too volunteered for the experiment.
‘We see that the participants in Weten wat werkt (What Works) are somewhat more highly educated and have spent less time on benefits. But we see in the data that this does not make too much difference when it comes to their chances on the labour market. Moreover, the group that applied is still randomly assigned to the different research groups. As a result, we can still fully compare the groups with each other'.
Differences between lower and higher educated people?
Another striking outcome seems to be the difference in the effects for higher and lower educated people.
‘The approach in the groups Autonomously in action and With extra help in action appears to work particularly well for the lower educated. There could be various explanations for this,' Verlaat thinks. ‘It is possible that the different approaches have no effect for higher educated people because this group is doing well on its own. It is also possible that higher educated people on welfare have to deal with obstacles (mental, family, financial) that are so large that a different treatment makes no difference because of the underlying problems.
A possible explanation why Autonomously in action works better for people with a lower level of education might be the prevention of 'lock-in'. If there is an assumption that lower educated people need training, education, etc., while they can find a job independently, then this actually keeps them from going back to work immediately. Another possibility is that the current rules as they are formulated could be obstructive for lower educated people. Then it might help if you remove all the rules (Autonomously in action) or if you have someone next to you who guides you well in that process (as it is the case in With extra help in action). Unfortunately, we can’t pinpoint this.’
Focus on the longer term and subgroups
‘We know that in the short term this target group mainly takes small steps,' says Timo Verlaat, 'it is precisely for this reason that the long-term effects are very interesting.’
Originally the intention was to follow the 787 social assistance claimants who had applied for the study for two years - as long as was possible within the legal framework. However, the study started somewhat later, which meant that the groups were followed for 16 months. Nevertheless, the results of the study are meaningful.
‘We would have liked to follow the group of participants for a longer period of time and in the ideal situation the groups would have been larger, allowing us to look at subgroups in more detail,' explains Verlaat. ‘We have not yet been able to fully answer the question of what the optimal arrangement is. This requires follow-up research. For example, we want to understand even better which approach works best for whom in social assistance'.
Contracting party and research team
The study Weten wat werkt (What Works) was conducted by Utrecht University (Utrecht University School of Economics) on behalf of the Municipality of Utrecht and the Regional Social Service Kromme Rijn Heuvelrug. The study is part of a series of Dutch experiments with social assistance carried out independently within a national research framework designed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment (SZW).
Full report and more
Read the full report Weten wat werkt: samen werken aan een betere bijstand
- Summary in English and in German
- Press release Municipality of Utrecht (in Dutch)
- On our publication page you can find more extensive documentation about the research project
Do you have questions about Weten wat werkt (What Works)? Please contact Timo Verlaat.