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The shame of itGlobal perspectives on anti-poverty policies$

Erika K. Gubrium, Sony Pellissery, and Ivar Lødemel

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9781447308713

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447308713.001.0001

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‘Not good enough’: social assistance and shaming in Norway

‘Not good enough’: social assistance and shaming in Norway

(p.85) Five ‘Not good enough’: social assistance and shaming in Norway
The shame of it

Erika K. Gubrium

Ivar Lødemel

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the discussions and discourses arising within the context of Norway’s decade long campaign against poverty and the ways in which shame, shaming and the re-casting of poverty have been wielded in this setting. The chapter recognizes the marginality of poverty within a strong welfare state setting and how this characteristic has shaped the debate and discussion surrounding the issue of poverty. Our discussion is primarily informed by an analysis of the early policy development process attached to the Qualification Programme, a new labour activation offering, targeted toward eligible social assistance claimants and first implemented in 2007.

Keywords:   Norway, work activation, social assistance, marginalization


Norway is a thin, stretched country with a population of just over 5 million. It is one of the world’s richest countries, and its residents possess among the lowest variability in living standards (The World Bank, 2011). There is a long-standing consensus among all political parties that the quality of health, education and social services should be equalised as much as possible throughout the nation. Hence, the Norwegian welfare state is built on the ‘citizenship’ principle, with schemes, for the most part, financed through general taxes and a tax system that is redistributive in nature (Kuhnle, 1994a, p 81). This consensus is based on a prerequisite strong work ethic and commitment to full employment, as well as the ideals of equality, social justice, social security, solidarity and social integration (Christiansen and Markkola, 2006; Halvorsen and Stjernø, 2008).

These ideals are subject to positive and negative tensions. The redistributive and integrative goals of the Norwegian welfare state are premised on an economy that maintains high employment levels and economically active people (Lødemel et al, 2001). The country’s policy focus on employment and employability – crystallised as its ‘work approach’ – is not, however, always conducive to the broader ethical ideals listed above and may, for particular groups, work to heighten a sense of marginalisation and exclusion.

Norway’s broader welfare state is characterised by a diverse array of social reforms, where eligibility is based not on class or occupation but instead on residency. Development was encouraged early on by a traditionally strong peasant/agricultural class (Halvorsen and Stjernø, 2008) joining forces with organised labour, by the relatively strong position of democratic government and by political consensus on issues (p.86) related to social protection and welfare (Baldwin, 1990; Hatland, 1992). The concept of folkeforsikring (the people’s insurance) and the principle of universal coverage entered the Norwegian policy arena well before the end of the 19th century and certainly before the universal welfare ideas of Beveridge some 50 years later (Seip, 1981; Kuhnle, 1994b).

The Norwegian Labour Party’s near-hegemonic rule from 1935 until the early 1960s, along with a pragmatic post-Second World War political consensus supporting the development of a broader welfare state, ensured the rapid expansion of coverage and increased benefit levels (Lødemel, 1997a). Political disagreements swirled around early on concerning the question of whether benefits should be means-tested or universal, yet by 1960 the Labour Party had introduced a series of broad and generous social insurance schemes that were targeted at varying risk categories. Beginning with older people and then extending to ‘deserving’ groups such as those with a disability, the unemployed, the widowed and single parents, these were available without means-testing (Lødemel, 1997a; Halvorsen and Stjernø, 2008). Along with a redistributive tax system, the discovery and subsequent export of oil in the nation’s North Sea waters since the 1970s have provided a substantial economic boost and acted as a crucial cash generator for the generous Norwegian welfare state (Halvorsen and Stjernø, 2008). Contrary to popular understanding, however, Norway is not a purely universal welfare state. While most benefits are not means-tested, most are contingent on having had a history of gainful employment (with the exception of a more basic level of benefits, including child benefit, a pension for those with congenital disabilities and the minimum/basic old-age pension). The connection between worthiness for benefits and one’s employment has reflected a Labour Party emphasis on the wage earner and its aim to clarify the relationship between rights and duties (Baldwin, 1990; Hatland, 1992; Halvorsen and Stjernø, 2008).

The broad extension of generous social insurance benefits that characterises the Norwegian welfare system has also resulted in a paradox of sorts. Over the last century, broadly targeted welfare provisions have lifted (deserving) risk groups out of poverty,1 social assistance or family dependency. At the same time, the character of the system means that those individuals not eligible for, or perceived as deserving of, generous benefits have been reduced to the few who are then eligible only for social assistance (Lødemel, 1997a, p 83).2 As Norwegian social assistance is granted when all other support options in connection with loss of income have been exhausted, it is considered poverty relief. The groups making up Norway’s disparate social assistance population resemble those living in relative poverty (p.87) (Halvorsen and Stjernø, 2008), and it is the social assistance claimant, therefore, that forms the focus of this chapter.

Due to these features, social assistance is considered the benefit of last resort and plays a residual role in the larger Norwegian social protection system. The paradox of a residual system prevailing under extensive institutional welfare arises from the national focus on the extensions of alternatives to social assistance. In this process, social assistance has remained more similar to the preceding and stigmatising Poor Law.3 The residualism of this scheme and its ‘stigma by association’ are reflected in the status of claimants and in the implicit aim to pay only the minimum benefit necessary to claimants, who face negative social sanctions ‘in the form of lost citizenship rights’ (Lødemel, 1997a, p 269).

Scandinavian studies exploring cultural conceptions and personal experiences of poverty have reported on the psychosocial barriers – including shame and stigma – experienced in tandem with financial instability within the larger Scandinavian setting (Jönsson and Starrin, 2000; Jönsson, 2002; Underlid, 2005; Angelin, 2009). The combination of financial difficulties and the receipt of public aid may heighten this experience. Our conversations with individual claimants, in tandem with discussions with members of the more economically secure ‘general public’ and a review of media coverage of poverty offer a unique space within which to analyse Norway’s social assistance policy for its role in heightening shame or building the dignity of claimants.

Fifteen years ago, Ivar Lødemel (1997a) began a conversation that directly connected the residual nature of social assistance in Norway with stigma and shame. Since that time, however, empirical studies within this setting have not straddled the fields of social policy and social psychology to more closely evaluate this connection. This chapter provides empirical grounding to this effort by discerning how shaming has occurred within the framing, shaping and delivery of this welfare scheme. The focus on national policy-making spans the years 2000-12 as this period has represented a revitalised public focus on poverty in Norway, a shift that has been reflected by vast reforms to Norway’s labour and welfare system.

Framing policy: marginality in a generous welfare setting

As far back as the 1537 Lutheran Reformation and in contrast to most Continental European nations, the Norwegian state has restricted the role of charities and voluntary organisations in the social welfare arena (Halvorsen and Stjernø, 2008, p 11). Since the Second World War, its (p.88) generous mainstream social security system has been overwhelmingly aimed at mitigating the effects of social inequalities (Esping-Andersen, 1990) and removing the significance of social origin on social mobility (Wiborg and Hansen, 2009). Yet the broader understandings of social assistance and the more personal experiences of those receiving this benefit underscore the sense of social shame that may arise from the dissonance between the standard expectation of mobility and the reality of constrained options (Gubrium, 2013a; Gubrium and Lødemel, 2014).

Our investigation of Norwegian literature suggests a larger narrative in which, following a period of urbanisation and industrialisation, new urban dwellers experienced increased means for upward social mobility and a higher standard of living. Yet modernity was also accompanied by a greater dependence on the broader labour market (Gubrium, 2013a). In modern times, shame has become an increasingly individualised phenomenon. It is associated with an internalised failure to realise social expectations and individual goals or to reach a level of personal fulfilment and potential. This has the potential of resulting in loneliness and self-blame (Frønes, 2001; Skårderud, 2001; Underlid, 2005). The presence of newer internalised shame may mean that its effect is even more crippling in its more modern incarnation and has, in this sense, acted more as a de-motivator than a motivator to participate in the workforce.

Norwegian respondents claiming social assistance linked an internalised and individualised sense of shame to their social identities as ‘dependent’ on last resort public benefits. This experience was mediated by the public discourse surrounding the issue of poverty. The economically secure people we spoke with frequently described the receipt of social assistance as ‘not normal’ given Norway’s rich and generous welfare state setting, low level of unemployment and record levels of labour market participation. They placed responsibility for economic difficulties – for unemployment in particular – on the individual. Economic precariousness was described largely as a matter of unfortunate choices. Norwegian newspaper coverage, while not unduly negative, also showed a general presumption of individualised responsibility for poverty. Those portrayals of poverty that were negative were often connected with system abuse and with low levels of ‘self-reliance’ among welfare system claimants (Gubrium, 2014). An especially negative focus was placed on non-Western immigrant claimants who were described as not ‘play(ing) by society’s rules’ (Herland, 2007).

Poverty in Norway is primarily a relative phenomenon and Norway might be said to represent a best-case scenario. The country’s population (p.89) has a median income of US$51,000 (295,500 NOK) and among the lowest levels of income inequality in international comparisons4 (Statistics Norway, 2010). The term ‘poverty’ was, in fact, largely absent from policy discussions in the preceding half-century of welfare expansion. It has, however, resurged as a matter of public concern in the past two decades (Hagen and Lødemel, 2010). Despite political promises across the political spectrum to ‘reduce’ or even ‘eliminate’ poverty, poverty in Norway has, thus far, been ‘ineradicable’ (Halvorsen and Stjerno, 2008, p 103). The relational character of poverty is mirrored in the shame and social exclusion felt by those struggling economically in the midst of a rather rich majority (Gubrium, 2013a). This strain may have been further heightened with more recently increasing income disparities (Aaberge and Atkinson, 2008)5 and a new cultural emphasis on consumption (Gubrium, 2014).

Norway’s relatively high standard of living is also reflected by the fact that while the average level of social assistance cash benefit provided is comparatively high in international terms6 (Hatland and Pedersen, 2006), the scheme is simultaneously critiqued within Norway for providing a benefit rate that is so low as to be ‘nearly under the hunger line’ (Aasheim, 2009). Aside from whether the benefit is too high or too low, its low level of take-up means that it remains a relatively ineffective measure for eliminating poverty (Halvorsen and Stjernø, 2008). The challenge, then, may lie in the social aspects of social assistance that have prevented its full or effective use.

Since the late 1990s, a Norwegian policy-making consensus has placed an explicit rhetorical focus on the social aspect of poverty, calling for strategies that will successfully integrate marginalised groups into the labour market and mainstream society. These ideas are encapsulated in Norway’s broader work approach. As described below, a rights-based version of this approach has recently been directed toward social assistance, with varying psychosocial consequences for claimants.

Shaping policy: motivating troubled individuals

Population ageing and shifting family dynamics, immigration and the labour market consequences of globalisation and technology change have tested the feasibility of generous welfare provisions in the northern European Social Democratic welfare states in the past three decades (Esping-Andersen, 2000). Policy-makers have rhetorically grappled with these challenges by placing an overwhelming focus on helping troubled individuals back into the labour market. Work and work incentives have been aimed at reducing unemployment as well as (p.90) minimising the dependency that has been feared to be generated by generous welfare programmes (Øverbye, 2003).

Norway’s work approach also has earlier roots. Reflecting the traditional Labour Party emphasis on rights and duties, its Social Care Act 1964 made the preliminary suggestion that a work approach (arbeidslinja) would enable claimants to improve their qualifications and actively seek work (Hvinden, 1994). An explicit policy shift concerning the rights and expectations surrounding the receipt of social assistance, however, first took place in the early 1990s. While decisions concerning the distribution of social assistance benefits had traditionally been a matter of local discretion (Hatland, 2007), in 1991 the Labour Party-led Brundtland III administration reintroduced ‘workfare’ into modern Norwegian social assistance in order to motivate claimants to enter the labour market. Local authorities were, for the first time, permitted to require that claimants work in exchange for their benefits (Dahl, 2003; Lødemel, 1997b, 2001).

In contrast to the rhetorical focus on claimant integration and autonomy, studies based on surveys and interviews collected from Norwegian long-term social assistance claimants in the early 2000s linked the country’s workfare approach to a range of negative social and individual repercussions. The comparatively high levels of institutionalised and general social trust found within the Norwegian population were reduced among claimants, largely due to the use of means-tested and discretionary eligibility assessment and the increased attachment of work-related conditions to the provision of benefits (Malmberg-Heimonen, 2008, 2009). These features also had the potential to decrease the mental health of social assistance claimants (Malmberg-Heimonen, 2009). In a micro-level study of the effects of social assistance receipt from a psychological perspective, long-term social assistance claimants described an overarching fear of their professional, financial and personal futures due to everyday insecurity and an inability to predict their future circumstances (Underlid, 2007). Claimants also described a sense of their own devalued status in conjunction with unpredictable and discretionary financial aid, relatively low institutional expectations and a lack of individual recognition given their categorisation as dependent ‘recipients’ (Underlid, 2005).

By the mid-2000s, the antagonism between Norway’s welfare system and system users had become a heated matter of public debate among policy-makers, preceding a wave of reform. On the matter of social assistance, the Labour Party administration was chastised for ‘having done too little for those who “sit lowest at the table”’ (Editor, Aftenposten Morgen, 2004), as efforts to fix institutional weaknesses were (p.91) associated with individual struggles. The image of passive system users was emphasised with oft-repeated suggestions that they were merely ‘shuttlecocks’ (kasteballer) being aimlessly bounced around a labyrinth of welfare agencies.

In response, policy-makers publicly expressed a sense of urgency about the need to ‘fix’ an unwieldy, uncoordinated, inefficient and unresponsive system that had trapped claimants into welfare benefit dependency (Reegård, 2009). They also recognised that the country’s changed demographic composition and labour market requirements meant that the category of long-term social assistance claimant increasingly consisted of people with few employment-related qualifications (White Paper nr 6, 2002-03).7 Policy-making discussions and the policies enacted by the red-green Stoltenberg II administration referred to an overall goal of social inclusion. Yet reform solutions were based on many of the same rational choice presumptions of individual agency and choice that had marked the earlier workfare approach (Lødemel and Trickey, 2001; Gubrium et al, forthcoming – 2014). The strategies applied did not, in fact, address the structural factors that limited work participation. Instead, they remained aimed at the personally constrained and motivationally challenged individual claimant who found him or herself outside the workforce (White Paper nr 9, 2006-07, pp 41-2; Stoltenberg et al, 2006).

Nonetheless, the period of reform presented an opportunity to move toward dignity building. Despite an individualised focus, Norwegian policy-makers emphasised the use of incentives in the form of the provision of enhanced programming and expectations. The move was away from workfare and toward a ‘human capital’ approach, with a greater focus on claimant skills and potentials (White Paper nr 9, 2006-07), this at a time of broader European movement towards punitive sanctions (Lødemel and Moreira, 2014). Norway’s unique shift towards positive incentives was, in part, enabled by institutional reform involving the partial nationalisation of activation via a comprehensive 2006 work and welfare governance reform. This reform merged the formerly separate managements of the Public Employment Service and the National Insurance Service into a single entity, and partly integrated and co-localised these national services with municipal social assistance services at the local level, into common front-line municipal offices.8

In light of demographic and labour market challenges in the years before (White Paper nr 6, 2002-03), the merger enabled the sort of state-level work activation approach formerly accessible only to those on short-term unemployment benefits to be offered for the first time to municipal-level social assistance claimants. The new approach was (p.92) encapsulated in the 2007 Qualification Programme.9 The Programme represented a new set of support services and the provision of state benefit set at a higher level than that of basic economic social assistance. Its offer of ‘more’ was to more effectively move claimants into the labour market (NAV Directorate, 2011; White Paper nr 9, 2006-07). Indeed, international praise for the Programme has emphasised its encouragement of ‘active citizenship’ as well as its provision of ‘intensive personal support’ to move claimants into the labour market (Prins, 2009; Duffy, 2010).

Yet the new offer was also characterised by the use of more requirements and stricter rules for a select group of claimants (White Paper nr 9, 2006-07). Policy-maker rhetoric concerning the benefits of the Qualification Programme employed a mix of harder and softer approaches toward worklessness. Labour and Inclusion Minister Bjarne Håkon Hanssen (LP) suggested that the reform meant that claimants would no longer be able to relinquish their social responsibilities, stating that Programme participants would be subject to binding ‘contracts’ to force them to ‘get up in the morning’ and ‘do their duty’ (Gjerstad, 2005). Representing the tension within the red-green coalition government over the purpose of the new work approach, Socialist Left Parliamentary member, Karin Andersen, distanced herself from Hanssen’s tough love rhetoric and described the Programme as a holistic measure to ‘mitigate the worst impact of poverty’ by ‘giv[ing] everyone equal possibilities’ via the ‘right to’ a binding welfare contract in which the duties of the welfare system would be emphasised as much as those of the claimant (Andersen, 2006).

While the rhetoric surrounding the Programme varied, there was a general consensus that it represented a new opportunity for a select group of eligible claimants. The choice to limit broader programmatic possibilities and greater social citizenship rights to a portion of the entire claimant group furthered the distinction between deserving and underserving, and created a new set of tiers within social assistance. As described below, the new distinctions of worthiness within the ranks of social assistance may result in heightened shame for claimants.

Structuring and delivery: shaming the residuum

Since the Second World War, Norway’s Parliament has granted to most of its welfare system claimants ‘strong’ legal rights (Hatland, 2007). This includes the right to prepare for the longer term, equal provision rights across geographical location, greater autonomy and voice in obtaining provisions and the recognition that claimant needs (p.93) are legitimate and that there is a social responsibility for meeting these needs (Hatland, 2007, pp 209-11). Notably, these rights do not exist within the arena of social assistance, which has largely failed to move beyond the ‘weak rights’ characteristic of the Poor Law era (Lødemel, 1997a). The marginalised status of social assistance with respect to the broader welfare system is strongly reflected in three ways: (1) through the system’s discernment between deserving and undeserving groups, in which social assistance claimants are the least deserving; (2) through the discretionary imposition of conditions by which one can claim social assistance benefits; and (3) through the constriction of the social citizenship rights of social assistance claimants.

As a residualist welfare scheme, Norwegian social assistance is a last resort option, subordinate to the primary goal of economic growth, and is marked by strict, normatively-based and discretionary eligibility rules, as well as limited coverage (Titmuss, 1974). While a softened version of Poor Law ideology now applies, the calculus remains the same: in order to receive minimum levels of aid, claimants are subjected to conditions that are worse than those experienced by the poorest worker not receiving benefits. And this to establish the validity of a person’s claim to be destitute. In Norway, the discretionary assessment of claims, heightened conditionality and restricted social citizenship differentiate the undeserving from the deserving. Policy-makers operate under the general understanding that they must carefully calculate and apply the correct incentives (or disincentives) to motivate (or force) claimants to enter the labour market. According to the social assistance claimants we spoke with, these residualist elements and this calculus have been a source of considerable shaming.

In contrast to basic social assistance, the Qualification Programme has, at least in its early years, been offered as a national alternative to municipally funded and administered economic social assistance.10 Programme participants have been given the incentive of a higher and standardised qualification benefit and, through close cooperation with and supervision by the local labour and welfare office, they are guaranteed and expected to follow customised individual plans focused on movement back into work life. The new opportunity for broader programming and rights for social assistance claimants has, however, come at a price. Given the partial integration of the Public Employment Service and social assistance services following Norway’s labour and welfare system governance reform, it is not surprising that the assumptions, aims and structure of the offer closely resemble those formerly applied to those receiving short-term unemployment benefits. The offer of ‘more’ is better matched to the needs and qualifications (p.94) of people who are close to the labour market rather than to the complex and resource-intensive needs of long-term social assistance claimants. Many respondents described a sense of dread and internalised shame about the threat or reality of failing to fulfil the work-related expectations that would enable them to move out of the ranks of social assistance. The new distinctions that have been drawn play out at three levels: through a heightened focus on determining eligibility to rights and benefits, through the presence of work-related conditions attached to new opportunities, and through a new hierarchy that has been generated within social assistance.

Discretion and eligibility

Basic economic social assistance is a general scheme to which all of Norway’s legal residents have a right.11 Economic social assistance is a tax-free net benefit that is means-tested and granted by local authorities according to need in order to meet the basic costs of living. The high degree of local autonomy in setting benefit levels and conditions, dealing with complaints and providing activation, however, is recognised as a factor that has prevented the ‘modernisation’ of social assistance in Norway during the last half century (Terum, 1996; Lødemel, 1997a). These features have arguably prevented a shift to a system based on predictable and stable standards.

Similar to the UK until the 2000s and to China, India and Pakistan today (see Chapters Two, Three and Six, this volume), Norwegian social assistance is subject to a discretionary household means test. In the case of Norway, the means test is administered by the same caseworker counselling the claimant and this is significant to the claimant–caseworker interaction. One respondent described feeling “categorised” when he had applied for his benefit cheque, noting that he had had to “play a role” for his caseworker in order to be judged worthy of receiving assistance, suggesting that he was expected to look “pitiful” in order to be judged worthy of receiving help. Accessing his benefits meant demeaning himself in order to fit into institutional expectations of what it was to be a claimant. Another spoke of his reluctance to claim social assistance for fear he would have to sell his car and apartment in order to pass the means test, actions he felt would make life more difficult for his family (Gubrium and Lødemel, 2014). In general, respondents described how the determination of eligibility for the benefit had meant either emphasising that they were already living in vastly reduced circumstances or being forced to reduce their living conditions to near subsistence levels.

(p.95) While the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving has long been reflected within Norwegian social assistance policy language, the Social Care Act 1964 (Lov om sosial omsorg), replacing the Poor Law, echoed the related idea of free choice and responsibility in its ‘help to self-help’ philosophy. Since 1964, the primary rhetorical focus in social assistance has been reducing dependency on the welfare state through the work approach. The early 1990s explicitly introduced the idea of distinctions made based on acceptable need (LOV-1991-12-13 nr 81a; Lødemel, 2001).

Since the introduction of the Qualification Programme in 2007, a further distinction within social assistance has been made through the creation of new tiers based largely on claimant employability. The Programme is targeted towards long-term social assistance claimants. It is aimed at claimants who have been judged as having severely reduced work and income ability. Yet a further eligibility criterion specifies that claimants must also possess a level of ability such that the Programme may be helpful in strengthening the possibility for participation in work life (White Paper nr 9, 2006-07, pp 34, 224). These vague and seemingly contradictory criteria have meant that their application in decision-making has varied according to the particular priorities and resources of local NAV offices (Naper, 2010). Caseworkers use the idea of employability to discretionarily divide claimants into two groups: those who are eligible to participate in the Qualification Programme and those who are not. Thus, in reality, access for claimants is more a luck of the draw than a real judgement on their ability to work.

Nonetheless, given the mix of a society that places strong emphasis on work and the complex and varied challenges faced by many of Norway’s long-term social assistance claimants (Wel et al, 2006; Naper et al, 2009), the overwhelming focus on employability is likely to result in heightened shame for many of those claimants who are not deemed eligible for the new opportunities attached to the Qualification Programme. Respondents associated Programme access with their inherent employability. Those who were not eligible described a heightened sense of inadequacy and shame linked to their challenging situation. One respondent, for example, described his frustration and confusion over his rejected application. He described his long history of work experience and his current desire for a “normal job” and a “normal life”, yet suggested that he had not been selected because his caseworker had felt he “wasn’t qualified”. He described a sense of disappointment in the fact that he would soon be placed in an unpaid position on a municipal manual labour team. His frequent emphasis (p.96) on his willingness to work suggested that he understood this decision as a judgement on his moral character and his current situation.


Along with means-testing, the placement of conditions attached to the receipt of economic social assistance has traditionally been a part of the dis/incentive-based calculus applied to prevent long-term dependency on benefits. An early version of this approach was seen in the Social Care Act 1964, which focused on the ‘rights and duties’ of claimants. The Social Services Act 1991 made this principle explicit. Municipal social workers were encouraged to require claimants to participate in work-seeking activities, training or skills-building measures in exchange for benefits. For claimants on regular social assistance today, these activities remain largely unchanged from the ‘work in exchange for benefit, quid pro quo’ arrangements that began within local municipalities in the early 1990s (Dahl, 2003; Harsløf, 2008; Lødemel, 1997b).

While the specific strategies attached to Norway’s work approach to social assistance have changed, the assumptions lying behind the approach remain the same. The Qualification Programme has explicitly codified a requirement that has merely been encouraged within the realm of basic social assistance since the early 1990s. The new rights and responsibilities attached to Programme participation are intended to both pressure and motivate those people ‘in danger of entering a passive situation’ (White Paper nr 9, 2006-07, p 224) into work. This strategy is predicated on ideas associated with paternalism and communitarianism. Claimants must receive the right mix of incentives to be motivated to enter the workforce. In doing so, they become full social participants. At the same time, they must receive the sufficient disincentives to dissuade them from staying on social assistance. An earlier national pilot study of active labour market programmes with long-term social assistance recipients had reported the mismatch between the strategies applied and the particular target group in focus (Lødemel and Johannessen, 2005). Furthermore, the presumption that claimants must be properly motivated stands in contrast to the descriptions of our respondents. Each and every one of the claimants we spoke with emphasised a keen desire to either work or to make the necessary life changes to eventually move into work. They linked the fact that they did not have the jobs that they wanted and were expected to have with a lowered self-image. One respondent expressed frustration at the meaningless and unpaid task she had been assigned of spooling thread at a factory, noting that what had been described by her caseworker as a form of (p.97) therapy was really nothing more than “grunt work” and an exercise in boredom and irritation. Several others strove to hide their lack of employment from friends and loved ones due to the embarrassment and shame they felt. Respondents frequently linked their inability to access real job opportunities to a sense of frustration and hopelessness. Another respondent described his long and unsuccessful search for work, concluding that he had “given up”, felt “completely empty” and did not “care any longer”. The work approach had heightened his alienation from mainstream society (Gubrium and Lødemel, 2014).

Yet social assistance and the Qualification Programme apply the idea of conditionality in crucially differing ways. The focus on new duties attending engagement with the Qualification Programme have been met with new rights for participants in the form of higher, regular and standardised benefits, a broader programmatic offering and close caseworker follow-up (Odelstings Prop nr 70, 2006-07). Respondents who were engaged in the Programme were, on the whole, fairly positive about the presence of activity requirements as these were accompanied by a strong institutional mantra that they were moving towards regular, wage-earning employment (Gubrium, 2013b). Forward movement was represented to respondents in the motivational courses and internships offered through the Programme, and through higher expectations on the part of their caseworkers. One respondent noted that it was the “first time” he had noticed “any interest” in helping him to “find the right direction” (Gubrium and Lødemel, 2014). It is perhaps not surprising that respondents were positive about this activity requirement given the overwhelming focus on employment in the Norwegian welfare system and the strong work ethic dominating Norwegian society at large.

There is a mismatch, however, between the Programme’s overall target group and its work-related aims. Indeed, policy-makers have been critiqued by the front-line professionals who work with social assistance claimants for the oversimplified assumption that individually targeted incentives and sanctions are the appropriate stimuli to move claimants into work, as well as for their failure to recognise the larger structural challenges claimants face (NTL, 2007). Another study has even reported concerns that the heightened focus on goals and quick solutions as opposed to more long-term holistic approaches may harm those claimants with complex and comprehensive needs (Røysum, 2012). Norway’s welfare directorate has itself acknowledged professional reluctance to encourage Programme participation, suggesting that this may reflect a perceived mismatch between the target group and the programme’s heavy work focus (NAV Directorate, 2012). The professionally perceived need for a more flexible approach has been (p.98) reflected in the widely varying ways in which the Programme has been implemented at the local level, ranging from an emphasis on broader life quality improvement to a more focused work approach (Djuve et al, 2012).

It appears that reservations concerning use of a strict work approach have been warranted. According to one preliminary evaluation of the Qualification Programme, while the work measures used within the Programme may be effective for briefly moving claimants into the labour market, they have not been effective for keeping claimants in longer-term paid employment (Schafft and Spjelkavik, 2011). Another evaluation, commissioned by the welfare directorate, reports that only 13 per cent of Qualification Programme participants have directly moved into and remained in work one year later (NAV Directorate, 2012). Similar internship programmes, targeted specifically at immigrant claimants, have also resulted in low employment rates and insecure, temporary positions on completion (Djuve and Latif Sandbæk, 2012).

While the presence of formalised work-oriented conditions for a select group of eligible social assistance claimants might provide a source of hope and motivation for some, for many these new expectations may be difficult to fulfil, and may thus heighten a sense of failure and shame. Several of the Qualification Programme participants we spoke with also described feeling a sense of “exploitation” after “working for free” time and time again. One described the promises made by her caseworker that signing up for the Programme would be a quick means to paid employment. She contrasted earlier hopes with the disappointment and demotivation she subsequently experienced as she continued to languish in unemployment “limbo” after having been placed on a series of short-term internships without a job offer, and her dread at her imminent move back to basic social assistance. For this respondent, work-oriented conditionality had served to heighten her shame at not being “good enough” (Gubrium and Lødemel, 2014).

Constrained social citizenship

T.H. Marshall’s (1950) notion of social citizenship involves ‘the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in society’ (p 8). The Qualification Programme takes this notion seriously: its components are structured to resemble the format of regular work wages and a standard work day (White Paper nr 9, 2006-07). As opposed to a social assistance benefit that merely offers a ‘citizen’s salary’ without a clarification of duties and rights (Parliamentary Response nr 148, 2006-07, (p.99) p 12), Programme participants receive a benefit that follows the rules that pertain to ordinary income. As opposed to tax-free, non-pension-accruing social assistance benefits, the Programme benefit is taxable and counts towards the accrual of a normal pension. These features allow participants better ‘security’ in the short term and ‘predictability’ in the long term (Odelstings Prop nr 70, 2006-07, p 38; White Paper nr 9, 2006-07, p 229). While partly emphasising the individual recipient’s duty to participate in and contribute more fully to society, the logistical requirements of the Qualification Programme also simulate the contours of ordinary work life, and participants engage in full-time activity on a year-long basis (White Paper nr 9, 2006-07, p 226). Furthermore, claimants engaged in the Programme receive the same holiday and leave privileges as regular wage-earning workers (Odelstings Prop nr 70, 2006-07). Finally, unlike the basic social assistance benefit, the Programme benefit is paid out by the local municipality’s pay office rather than by the local welfare office.

Respondents described how these features gave them a new sense of dignity. They contrasted their identities and the expectations facing them as basic social assistance recipients with those they experienced as participants in the Qualification Programme. Many described the sense of shame they felt from peers and society in connection with claiming social assistance. Their status as social assistance claimants was demeaning: not only did they feel that society viewed them as lazy and dependent “leeches”, but they also felt placed close to the bottom of welfare system hierarchy, noting their discomfort with being placed alongside people facing difficult times such as drug users, single parents and immigrants. One respondent emphasised the “shame” she continuously felt within this institutional context, describing herself as a “burden for other people”. As another described it, “you have everything stolen from you; you’re not a participant in society”. Respondents noted that the sense of failure for not living up to their own expectations they already felt was compounded by being made to feel insignificant and inferior in the eyes of the welfare institutions from which they received support (Gubrium and Lødemel, 2014).

Respondents’ sense of internalised failure and shame was supported by the paternalistic public discourse that surrounded social assistance. The duty-focused call for social assistance claimants to ‘get up in the morning’ has been reflected in the notion that following the Programme’s prescribed activities will enable participants to begin to reclaim full social citizenship. This notion was strongly expressed by these individuals we spoke with who were economically secure and not receiving benefits. There was a general idea that labour activation (p.100) would teach claimants ‘the value of contribution’ and to become ‘active participants’ (Gubrium, 2014). Indeed, for those respondents engaged in the Qualification Programme, these features were a crucial element in what they characterised as a move toward “normal”. One respondent described the importance of the normalising features of the Programme, noting that the “job feeling” he received as a Programme participant made him feel that he was someone who was “contributing back to society”. This had allowed him to begin to gain self-confidence and the courage to “move ahead”. Many respondents echoed the notion that these features had played a crucial role in the path towards feeling better about themselves? (Gubrium and Lødemel, 2014).

Implications and recommendations

There is resounding evidence that the conversation begun 15 years ago, tying the residual nature of social assistance in Norway with stigma and shame, still bears serious consideration within the realms of policy-making and practice alike. Norway’s social assistance scheme has had a residual role operating underneath a broader, more generous system of welfare provision, leaving fewer vulnerable groups within the scheme itself. Over time, group after group of ‘deserving’ claimants have been lifted out of this tier to be served by more rights-based social security-type benefits. This is arguably what has more recently happened with regard to those social assistance claimants who have potentially had the ability to work and who have been deemed eligible for the Qualification Programme. Our conversations with claimants suggest that the new possibilities tied to the Programme have improved the dignity of those who have been able to access and benefit from them.12 Yet the presence of new possibilities for some has heightened the shame of the many claimants who remain on regular social assistance or for those who have not found work through participation and who must return the scheme.

The social division of welfare that existed before the Qualification Programme was the product of distinctions made based on acceptable need. With this new offering, however, the delineation of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ has been shifted to one’s ability to fully participate in work. This newly placed institutional distinction heightened the shame felt by our respondents concerning their identities as social assistance claimants. Claimants were blamed for not “playing by the rules”. They focused on their own personal failings as related to their inability to find long-lasting, paid work. The shame they felt was mirrored, and perhaps heightened by, clear public and policy-making (p.101) rhetoric that placed blame and responsibility for economic difficulties at the individual level.

Institutionalised and individualised notions of responsibility and deservingness in Norway date back to the Poor Law era. These notions remained with the ‘help to self-help’ philosophy of the Social Care Act 1964. They were heightened with the introduction of an explicit conditionality 30 years later premised on a claimant’s ability to enter the labour market. Applying a macro lens, Norway’s heightened work approach for social assistance claimants since 2007 can be seen as a part of the broader move towards the re/commodification of this Social Democratic welfare state (Esping-Andersen, 1990). On the more personal level suggested by our low-income respondents, the punishment for not qualifying for or attaining employment is to be left on the lowest, residual tier of a mostly generous welfare system hierarchy. This marginalised identity is often a matter of shame, personal failing and hopelessness.

The Qualification Programme has been praised at the international level for its potentially successful approach to the alleviation of social exclusion. Political rhetoric has largely focused on the Programme’s provision of new rights and possibilities for eligible claimants. Indeed, the presence of the Qualification Programme has led to new rights for some claimants in the form of increased predictability and security, increased opportunities, increased social contribution and closer attention from caseworkers. Some of our respondents mirrored this enthusiasm, and described how moving into the mainstream welfare system had resulted in a new sense of motivation and self-assurance. Yet whether a programme or policy heightens shame or builds dignity depends on the particular location of the individual targeted. What is perceived as a new opportunity and a move forward for the few claimants who enter the Programme and ultimately succeed in finding employment might, by the very nature of a status hierarchy, be experienced as shaming for the majority of claimants who remain on or return to the residual tier. The findings from preliminary evaluation reports and the experiences of a majority of our respondents suggest that a move forward may be a short-lived experience even for those claimants selected for Programme participation. For the many claimants who face difficulties in working or finding work, it has introduced a new tier in which the capacity for the shaming and de-motivation of those who do not make the cut has become markedly higher. For many, having “failed again” – with a return to social assistance and an accompanying loss of economic and social rights – may heighten a sense of demoralisation.

(p.102) Norway has led the way in applying a work approach to minimum protection claimants (Lødemel and Moreira, 2014). This is perhaps not surprising as the country’s generous and tax-based welfare provisions are predicated, in large part, on the maintenance of high employment. Indeed, it is reasonable to expect that some effort be made to make accommodations for those individuals who are able to work. Norway’s work-oriented culture also means that having a job is not just a matter of economic security. In a social sense, it is a primary arena for attaining the dignity associated with social normalisation. Most of our respondents described wanting to find work as soon as possible, equalising employment with full social participation. Given these findings, it is not the work approach, per se, that is at the heart of claimant shaming: it is the tendency to place an overwhelming focus on the individually ‘challenged’ claimant. It is the assumption that individual claimants ‘choose’ not to work, and thus need merely to be properly motivated in order to enter the labour market. As one economically secure respondent argued, perhaps policy-makers in wealthy Norway could afford to “think bigger”.

Thinking bigger about the realities that claimants face, with an aim to move claimants into a realm in which they feel ‘normal’, secure, and recognised by the larger system, might begin the move towards an antipoverty policy framework based on dignity. The Poor Law-reminiscent effort to weed out the undeserving claimant from the deserving does not appear to be effective at the macroeconomic or personal level. These shame-inducing distinctions would be reduced given a rate and format of economic support for basic social assistance that mirrored those used in the Qualification Programme. We recommend a state index-based, guaranteed, minimum basic social assistance benefit that is based on a national standard for a reasonable household budget. This sort of benefit would minimise the challenges and frustrations experienced by this marginalised group of claimants. Respondents in the Qualification Programme suggested that, above a certain threshold that allowed them to meet local sociocultural norms in a material sense, it was the predictability of their benefit as much as the benefit level that had served to reduce the economic and psychological anxiety that they felt. Consideration should also be given to the format of the benefit to maximise claimants’ sense of social and civic participation. It was the ‘whole package’ of a clearer right to benefit, paid as a public sector salary, with salary-deduced rights, that provided respondents with a sense of normality and dignity. This design enabled a new sense of opportunity, hope and motivation.

(p.103) Many of the respondents who were engaged in the Qualification Programme contrasted their social expectations and activities as participants with the low expectations and lack of daily structure they had experienced when claiming basic social assistance. What many found most motivating was both the availability of something meaningful to do with their time and the existence of a higher set of expectations from others and for themselves. The current opportunity of work training via internships may be useful for those claimants with the ability and skills to gain and maintain employment. Preliminary evaluations of the Programme suggest that the strategy of moving participants into work has been a potentially effective strategy, but only insofar as tasks have been shaped to the ability of the participant and only if institutional follow-up has occurred to ensure the transition of participants to longer-term work (Schafft and Spjelkavik, 2011; Djuve and Latif Sandbæk, 2012). Respondent experiences reinforce these findings. For many, engaging in internships was effective only for the short term. Many described a sense of longer-term despair and shame given inadequate regulation and enforcement on the part of the welfare administration and policy-makers to match and move them more permanently into wage-earning positions.

The overwhelmingly ‘supply-side’ focus on using incentives to motivate claimants to enter the labour market has resulted in the individualisation of challenges that may really lie at the system level (Djuve and Latif Sandbæk, 2012). ‘Thinking bigger’ may include a turn to demand-side strategies to make the labour market more welcoming to individuals with reduced working capacity or lacking broad employment experience. Provisions subsidising the continued employment of Programme interns through employer ‘benefits’ would encourage the broader labour market and individual employers to meet claimants half way. This is a promising strategy to ensure that Programme participants do not remain an easily exploited workforce.

Finally, building claimant dignity would mean taking serious recognition of their varying needs and goals. It would include awareness on the part of policy-makers and the public alike that what the disparate groups making up social assistance share is not a lack of motivation or an inherent sense of passivity. What they share is that they receive low incomes, are not fully employed, are often socially marginalised and, according to our respondents, would prefer to move ahead into ‘normal’ society. A dignity-building framework for Norwegian policy-making should incorporate this understanding into the policy-making process.


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(1) According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) definition of poverty below 50 per cent median income, 5.7 per cent of the total Norwegian population lived under this threshold (2009 figures) (Normann, 2011).

(2) According to Statistics Norway (2010 figures), social assistance claimants make up 2.5 per cent of Norway’s population. Of this group, 39.6 per cent have received social assistance for six months or longer per year and are considered long-term recipients (www.ssb.no/sosind/tab-2011-12-05-07.html).

(3) The British Poor Law of 1834 largely influenced Norway’s Poor Law of 1845. It was characterised by a level of benefits balanced between the interests of providing enough assistance to afford basic subsistence, but not enough so as to de-motivate claimants from seeking work or seeking help from private arenas (Lødemel, 1997a, p 149).

(4) Its most recently reported Gini coefficient is 0.245 (Statistics Norway, 2010).

(5) In the decades after the Second World War Norway experienced greater levels of central economic planning and progressive taxation. There was also a gradual expansion of the Norwegian welfare state and a decrease in the share of top incomes. The change in direction came at the same time as the reform of income taxation in 1992. The income share of the top 1 per cent of the Norwegian population more than doubled between 1992 and 2007, with the rise since the end of the 1980s reversing the decline that took place within the previous 40 years (Aaberge and Atkinson, 2008, pp 8-9).

(6) Compared across Europe and as measured in purchasing power parities (PPP). However, as there is no national standard for the determination of benefit levels, they vary widely (Brandtzæg et al, 2006), and accurate comparison is, therefore, difficult (Bradshaw and Terum,1997; Kazepov, 2010; Kuivalainen and Nelson, 2010).

(7) Within the past three decades, a shift in the demographics of social assistance has taken place, and its ranks are largely made up of single parents, single people under the age of 35, unemployed non-Western immigrants, the long-term unemployed and individuals beset by a complex array of physical, substance abuse and mental health issues (Wel et al, 2006; Halvorsen and Stjernø, 2008; Naper et al, 2009; Hagen and Lødemel, 2010).

(p.105) (8) Until the mid-2000s, Norway’s labour market and welfare administration was the responsibility of three institutions: the Public Employment Service was responsible for public employment services and benefits to ‘ordinary’ jobseekers and people with work-related disabilities; the National Insurance Service managed benefits for people both within and outside the labour force, and was responsible for a range of services in relation to work and rehabilitation, family and pensions, and health-related benefits; and social assistance benefit provision was the responsibility of the local social welfare services, which was managed at the level of individual municipalities.

(9) The Programme was modelled after a precursor national programme aimed at non-Western immigrants, Norway’s 2004 Introduction Programme.

(10) Earmarked national funding specifically for the Qualification Programme, along with tight internal controls and reporting, allowed Norway’s Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) to show action in its early years. Since the start-up phase from 2007-10, however, national funding has moved toward block grant funding and this change has since seen a marked reduction in the number of Programme participants at the municipal level, with tougher criteria applied for eligibility and municipalities placing higher funding priority on other areas (NAV Directorate, 2012).

(11) Furthermore, unregistered residents have a right to ‘acute help’ in the form of cash or emergency medical assistance.

(12) Claimant experiences with labour activation may, however, depend on a host of biographical and social particulars (see Gubrium, 2013b).