Rules and requirements may increase inequality

Many of the life factors that cause people to need help from the state also reduce people’s ability to handle the rules and requirements of the welfare state. According to researchers from Aarhus BSS, the administrative rules and requirements may thus increase inequality in society.

30.01.2020 | INGRID MARIE FOSSUM

PHOTO: Cristian Newman/Unsplash

Poverty, illness and old age are all life factors that increase people’s likelihood of needing assistance from the state. At the same time, psychological research shows that poverty, illness and old age tend to impede people’s mental resources, which in turn may make it harder to handle rules and requirements associated with interacting with the state.

“For many, the welfare state is a vital source of help, but seeking assistance from the state takes its toll. It takes a lot of time and energy to find out which benefits and services are available, for whom these are intended, and which criteria you must meet to be entitled. Often there are forms to be completed, deadlines to meet and meetings to attend and so on,” says Julian Christensen, postdoc at the Department of Political Science at Aarhus BSS. Together with his colleagues, he is working on a large research project1), which aims to explore the causes and effects of burdens experienced by citizens interacting with the state.

According to Christensen, while many of us will probably be frustrated by rules and requirements when interacting with the state, most people will find the rules and requirements manageable.

“However, people whose mind is preoccupied with dealing with e.g. financial or health-related problems are more likely to struggle to overcome even minor additional obstacles along their way,” says the Aarhus BSS researcher.

Photo: Ingrid Marie Fossum/AU Foto

"When it comes to policies aimed at sick, poor, or elderly people, we need to consider whether the legitimate purposes behind the rules and requirements of the system are more important than the human costs that people in the system must pay due to these rules and requirements"

Julian Christensen - postdoc, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS

Disadvantaged citizens more affected by administrative burdens

Christensen has just published a new article2) in collaboration with Lene Aarøe and Martin Bækgaard from the Department of Political Science at Aarhus BSS, and Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan from Georgetown University. The article points to research showing that illness, poverty and old age often impede people’s executive functions, and the researchers discuss how this may be expected to affect people’s reactions to burdensome rules and requirements when interacting with the state.

Executive functions is an umbrella term used to describe a number of processes in the brain, crucial for, among other things, a person’s ability to manage their his or her time and to cope with complex tasks. People with low executive functioning tend to more often unwittingly forget about mundane but important tasks, miss deadlines, etc. Furthermore, they struggle more to remain calm when facing frustrating situations, making it harder to react constructively to burdens along their way.

Combined, these factors make it more difficult to cope with the welfare system and its many and often complicated rules and requirements. The researchers argue that there is a risk of increased inequality in society when seeking help from the state becomes a burdensome task. The citizens who are most in need of assistance will also be least able to overcome burdensome rules and requirements, and there is a risk that they will fail to get access to the help they need. And those who do receive assistance are at risk of being affected by huge psychological strains brought on by the requirements and rules that they are subject to. 

“You sometimes hear the argument that if a person is unable to handle the rules and requirements of the system, their need for the system is simply not great enough. That it must be a question of pulling yourself together,” says Christensen, and continues:

“However, ‘pulling yourself together’ requires mental resources that sick, poor, and elderly people often do not have, exactly because of their illness, poverty and old age. If a lot of administrative burdens have to be overcome in order to receive assistance, we risk creating a catch-22 situation where the state is poorly equipped to help the very people for whom the welfare state’s benefits and services were intended.”

The fact that burdensome rules and requirements often affect vulnerable citizens the most is supported by international research, which the Aarhus BSS researchers and their American colleagues draw on in their article. When people have to deal with more hassles to apply for public benefits, or when receiving the benefits gets associated with more administrative burdens, more people fail to take up the benefits, even though they are eligible for help. And the poorest and most ill citizens tend to be at higher risk of losing access to help than other, less vulnerable, people.

Mødet mellem borgere og vedfærdsstaten_infografik_UK_outline

Poverty, illness and old age are all life factors that increase people’s likelihood of needing help from the welfare state. At the same time, poverty, illness and old age reduce people’s mental resources and make it difficult for them to handle the rules and requirements of the welfare state. There are simply too many obstacles along the way. For some people, this means that they never gain access to the benefits and services that they are entitled to. GRAPHICS: Simon Andersen Nørredam

The role of decision-makers

Christensen underlines that he and his research colleagues do not wish to point the finger of blame at politicians and other decision-makers in the welfare state.

“Typically, there are legitimate purposes behind the rules and requirements of the welfare state. When we ask the unemployed to document that they are actively looking for work, this is partly to make sure that people are not cheating the system. In addition, some people argue that it should not be pleasant to receive help from the state. These people see burdensome rules and requirements as “friendly nudges” to ensure that people are motivated to become financially self-sufficient,” he says.

However, he hopes that the research will make decision-makers and voters more aware of the human consequences of how the welfare state is constructed.

He points to figures from the Danish Mental Health Foundation (Psykiatrifonden), which in 2019 studied the mental health of sick Danes who were in contact with one of Denmark’s job centres3). 70 per cent of the respondents said that they felt physical and psychological discomfort when attending meetings at the job centre. 59 per cent reported that they felt humiliated or experienced a lack of worthiness during their interactions with the job centre. No less than 23 per cent said that they had had thoughts about life not being worth living because of their experiences at the job centre.

“When it comes to policies aimed at sick, poor, or elderly people, we need to consider whether the legitimate purposes behind the rules and requirements of the system are more important than the human costs that people in the system must pay due to these rules and requirements. Is it a price we are willing to pay? This is a political trade-off, but one that politicians must make with their eyes open,” says Christensen.

Notes:

1) The research project website.

2) Original article: Julian Christensen, Lene Aarøe, Martin Bækgaard, Pamela Herd and Donald P. Moynihan: “Human Capital and Administrative Burden: The Role of Cognitive Resources in Citizen-State Interactions”. The article is freely available at Public Administration Review

3) The Danish Mental Health Foundation’s report