Welfare as Purgatory: The irrational rationality of activation and sanctions

Welfare as Purgatory: The irrational rationality of activation and sanctions

Tom Boland and Ray Griffin

Do policy makers design welfare systems to punish claimants? By making welfare payments depend upon jobseekers complying with directions given by welfare officers, with financial sanctions which can lead to hunger, destitution or worse, the unemployed are increasingly subject to humiliating treatment. It is a serious question; are our policy makers deliberately cruel? Or perhaps they are the pawns of neo-liberalism, determined to maintain a steady stream of applicants for precarious work?

Across the OECD, recent decades have seen the spread of Active Labour Market Policies (ALMPs), which have built an assemblage of surveillance, sanctions and ‘workfare’ over the older post-WWII social safety net. Advocates of these policies argue that they are economically efficient, re-skilling workers and pushing idlers to find jobs. Some evidence suggests that ‘human-capital’ approaches help the economy by improving workers’ skills, but pressurising and threatening claimants seems to have no positive effect. Critics argue that ALMPs are cruel and that the impact of sanctions, not just financially, but as a constant psychological threat, clearly has negative consequences for jobseekers’ health and well-being. In the long run, the state may even be acting against its own long term interest, saving money now but creating future problems.

While there are many elements involved – neo-liberal economics, technological management, psychological control and so forth – our argument is that policy makers are motivated by deeper elements within our culture. This is the idea of purgatory, the idea that punishment purifies.

Policy makers, street-level officers and even jobseekers do not see their situation neutrally or objectively, but through deep-seated cultural categories. Especially when faced by things such as complex wider economic processes, or the bewildering experience of being unemployed, people interpret the world using deeper cultural ideas – and this influences how they act. Rather than being ‘evidence-based’, then, welfare reform is animated by the idea of purgatory.  Despite its obscurity, this idea has long inspired those involved in policing the poor, from workhouses to Jobcentres.

Such a historical argument was made by Max Weber, who suggested that the Protestant conception of the world as a trial of the soul made good fortune into a sign of divine providence. Within this conception of the world, an individual is inspired to work hard in their profession or enterprise in pursuit of their own salvation, and not just to achieve high social status or fulfil their greedy impulses. Within this, the poor may be somewhat redeemed by hard labour, but idlers are considered morally repugnant.

Alms for those in purgatory were famously criticised by Martin Luther, yet, curiously, it is in Protestant and Calvinist countries that the medieval form of welfare – charity given directly to the poor – was transformed by state work programmes and workhouses into a form of purgatory.

Purgatory is a transitory space after life, wherein an individual soul must suffer for their sins. Time passes differently there, more slowly, like the tedious days of unemployment. There are punishments, less severe than hell, but crucially, they are designed to purify the soul, making it worthy of salvation. Furthermore, the punishment is tailored to the sinner’s own nature, reforming them as an individual, somewhat akin to how the unemployed are judged and categorised for certain forms of treatment – job-search, internships, re-skilling and so forth.

Beyond considering punishment necessary for sinners, the key idea about purgatory is that suffering has a positive effect; it purifies individuals of their sinful desires and weakness to temptation, edifying and transforming them into worthy souls. Putting individuals to the test, making them face a version of the biblical ‘trials of Job’ now becomes the prerogative of the architects of welfare processes.

But are welfare processes modelled on purgatory? In economic jargon unemployment is a ‘labour market transition’ and job-seeking constitutes an in-between zone between the heaven of a job and the hell of utter destitution. Clearly, contemporary attitudes and institutional logics of welfare position the individual as guilty for their own unemployment – many are psychologically profiled and coerced as though they had a character default. Effectively, unemployment is positioned as an individual fault rather than a structural problem. To receive welfare payments is thereby imagined less as a right than as a debt for which the claimant must allow their life to be examined by others, must become humble and accept any offers of work whatsoever. Jobseekers must work off these debts through constant jobsearch efforts. Rather than being economic agents with the freedom to choose, the unemployed become subjects who can be directed, pressured and punished with impunity.

The drive towards activation is decades old in the UK, and the negative impact on claimants has led to literally thousands of deaths from ill-health and suicide, leading to a UN investigation in 2016. However, there is broad public support for making welfare incrementally harsher and clear media scapegoating of imaginary ‘welfare fraudsters’. These purgatorial logics are clear in speeches by Iain Duncan Smith, the then Minister for Work and Pensions who oversaw an extraordinary increase in welfare sanctions from 2010-13:

“…no one will be overlooked or left without help… but we are saying to everyone that there is no longer any opt-out from a tough jobseeking regime. Locked into dependency on the state, people’s talents were too often wasted… either in trying to get more money from the state…or in dodging the state, as individuals were pushed into the shadow economy or a dark world of petty crime.”

Here, jobseekers appear as potential criminals, as lazy scroungers, as expert spongers on over-generous welfare systems and thereby wasting their talents. Moral overtones are clear throughout this; even ‘wasted talents’ reflects the biblical ‘Parable of the Talents’, where not using your gifts is sinful. Interestingly, while this speech reflects a typical rhetorical distinction between genuine and dubious jobseekers, all of them are subject to a ‘tough’ jobseeking regime. Punishment is compulsory. Indeed, the new system expects jobseekers to have made considerable efforts to find work even before signing on, demonstrating their commitment to the process.

Further expression was given to the purgatorial logic by David Cameron in 2015, who presented welfare reform as overcoming problems created by previous welfare systems, particularly ‘dependency culture’:

That it pays not to work. That you are owed something for nothing. It gave us millions of working-age people sitting at home on benefits even before the recession hit. It created a culture of entitlement.

Here we encounter the sin of pride, refusing to work – alongside the sin of sloth – ‘sitting at home’. These individuals have transgressed the rationale of the ‘protestant ethic’ which positions work as the only means of becoming deserving of good fortune. While positioned partially as the outcomes of perverse incentives within previous welfare systems, Cameron also presents these as personal moral failings:

First, we must treat the causes of poverty at their source, whether that’s debt, family break-down, educational failure or addiction. Second, we’ve got to recognise that in the end, the only thing that really beats poverty, long-term, is work.

Blaming individuals for structural forces which create intermittent unemployment have been critiqued as ideological, but the point here is to understand the rationality of these welfare reforms. Work appears as redemptive, a palliative to moral failings, even though in-work poverty is increasing. Eventually, Cameron suggests that jobseekers should participate, unpaid, in municipal work like cleaning parks. Rather than actually reducing unemployment by hiring cleaners or gardeners, the welfare system expands as a purgatorial complex for edifying punishment.

Jobseekers we have interviewed about their experiences frequently describe unemployment in purgatorial terms; for instance, ‘doing nothing’, ‘limbo’, ‘cold-storage’ and so forth. Many of them reflected on interactions with the welfare office as degrading, humiliating and pointless. Yet, when forced into job applications, training courses or internships which were practically useless, many jobseekers accepted that this treatment was somehow good for them; it ‘gave them structure’, ‘got them out of bed’ or just ‘kept me busy’. So, while welfare processes are unpleasant, painful and even occasionally deadly, many individuals accept rather than resist them, because they share the moralising idea of purgatory: the punishment will be worthwhile. Indeed, many jobseekers we interviewed claimed that they are not one of the ‘real’ unemployed, and that others deserve sanctions.

Few policy makers or welfare officers consciously think of purgatory, yet the idea of transformative punishment is the key justification for sanctioning the unemployed. Our theory is intended to illuminate the cultural logics which animate the drive towards activation and the broader transformations of the welfare state. Certainly, this purgatorial logic can be criticised as an ideology, yet even within the idea there is room for a more humane and rational way of treating individuals, modelling unemployment on a more merciful sort of limbo perhaps. Against activation, we propose unconditional welfare, where individuals manage their own transformation without threat of sanctions, so that all offers of support or training are optional. That is, redesigning welfare processes while keeping in mind another religious idea, not to judge others.


Tom Boland and Ray Griffin both lecture at Waterford Institute of Technology, where they direct the Waterford Unemployment Experiences Research Collaborative (WUERC), as part of the Centre for the study of the Moral Foundations of Economy and Society. Support by the Irish Research Council New Horizons scheme, their work explores the contemporary experience of unemployment, welfare and the labour market.  Their 2015 edited volume on the Sociology of Unemployment is published by Manchester University, and they are currently researching the moral and cultural meanings of work and welfare.


Dutch translation available here