Understanding benefit sanctions in social assistance in Norway

This project focuses on what happens before a benefit sanction is imposed in social assistance in Norway. It intends to understand how mandatory activation in social assistance is implemented by frontline workers at welfare offices (NAV).

Across western countries, the receipt of welfare benefits has become increasingly conditional on behavioural requirements. Such behavioural requirements often require welfare users to participate in work-related activities or activation programmes in order to receive public support. If welfare users fail to comply with these requirements, frontline workers at welfare offices can impose benefit sanctions that reduce, suspend or cease the welfare benefit.

When benefit sanctions apply in social assistance that often is the last safety-net in social security systems, a greater risk of impoverishment occurs. That is, sanctioning in social assistance can have more dramatic consequences than in other welfare benefits, increase poverty and undermine the goals of income security and self-sufficiency.

In Norway, as of 2017, activation has become a mandatory requirement in social assistance for all welfare users under the age of 30 years old (§20a, sosialtjenesteloven). Although the law allows for benefit reductions for non-compliance cases, these are not specified leaving such decisions to frontline workers’ discretion.

This project focuses on what happens before a benefit sanction is imposed in social assistance in Norway. It intends to understand how mandatory activation in social assistance is implemented by frontline workers at welfare offices (NAV).

As follows, through an ethnographic research approach, this case study investigates in what way non-compliance results in benefit sanctions by looking at frontline workers everyday practices, their strategies towards non-compliance and their justifications to sanction. To this purpose, I also study frontline workers – welfare users’ interactions.

Even though Norway is considered to apply mild benefit sanctions in an international perspective, frontline workers seem to deal with the same dilemmas when non-compliance occurs. They need to assess whether welfare users’ non-compliance is based on incapability or unwillingness to comply with the requirements and as such face the dilemma of securing the welfare user’s income and sanctioning non-compliance at the same time.

This project seeks to contribute to welfare conditionality and street-level literature by providing a comparative perspective. To this purpose, I additionally study the Portuguese case to attain a greater understanding about the Norwegian policy implementation. Portugal is characterised by stringent requirements and severe benefit sanctions in an international context.

In this regard, studying these two countries with opposing positions on the sanctions’ severity spectrum in social assistance, allows to document the uniqueness of theses variations as well as to capture the common patterns in welfare conditionality that shape policy implementation. This project applies sociology of the professions and street-level bureaucracy as the main theoretical perspectives.

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