Appropriations of the German Minimum Income Scheme and Life Planning

Individualisation as a Way to Exit Long-term Benefit Receipt

by Norbert Petzold (Author)
©2018 Thesis 258 Pages


Against the background of a high incidence of long-term benefit receipt and an increasing focus of interventions on the individual beneficiary, this study shows how individualised policies within the German minimum income scheme serve long-term beneficiaries as a way out of benefit receipt. By applying a qualitative research design, the link between individual appropriations of policies and individual life planning is reconstructed in the form of an empirically grounded typology. The analysis shows that individualised policies are ridden with prerequisites. Beneficiaries, that are not able to expertly appropriate them and to plan in the long-term, face unintended consequences like a limitation of life planning, a separation from the scheme or an establishment within entitlement.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Tables
  • Figures
  • Abbreviations
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The individualisation of minimum income schemes’ policies
  • 2.1 The paradigm shift towards individualisation: three different meanings
  • 2.2 Characterising minimum income schemes: the institutional manifestations of the individualisation paradigm
  • 2.2.1 Benefits: no reflection of the individualisation paradigm
  • 2.2.2 Integrated services: ensuring an individualised service provision
  • 2.2.3 Conditionality: requesting individual responsibility
  • 2.2.4 Personalisation: allowing beneficiaries’ participation in designing their courses of entitlement
  • 2.3 Implicit assumptions of individualised policies at the individual level
  • 2.4 Summary
  • 3. The institutional context of the German minimum income scheme
  • 3.1 The overall performance of the German minimum income scheme of getting beneficiaries out of benefit receipt
  • 3.2 The situation of integrated services in the German minimum income scheme
  • 3.2.1 Description of integrated services
  • 3.2.2 Individualised service provision as an organisational task
  • 3.2.3 Research on integrated services
  • 3.3 The situation of conditionality in the German minimum income scheme
  • 3.3.1 Description of conditionality
  • 3.3.2 Research on conditionality
  • 3.4 The situation of personalisation in the German minimum income scheme
  • 3.4.1 Description of personalisation
  • 3.4.2 Research on personalisation
  • 3.5 Summary
  • 4. Individual perspectives on the German minimum income scheme as institutional context and biographical situation
  • 4.1 Beneficiaries’ evaluations of the institutional context of the German minimum income scheme
  • 4.2 Beneficiaries’ references to the German minimum income scheme entitlement as biographical situation
  • 4.3 Summary
  • 5. Theoretical framework: long-term beneficiaries’ appropriations of the German minimum income scheme and their life planning regarding benefit receipt
  • 5.1 The relation between agency and its context
  • 5.2 The development of the agency concept: forms of agency and their temporal scopes
  • 5.3 Appropriations of an institutional context and individual life planning
  • 5.3.1 Describing appropriations of an institutional context
  • 5.3.2 Describing individual life planning
  • 5.3.3 Allowing links between beneficiaries’ appropriations and life planning
  • 5.4 Summary: investigating beneficiaries’ appropriations of the German minimum income scheme and their life planning regarding benefit receipt
  • 6. Research design and methods
  • 6.1 Goals of this study
  • 6.2 The relevance of theoretical knowledge
  • 6.3 Research questions
  • 6.4 Data collection
  • 6.4.1 Sampling and field access
  • 6.4.2 The problem-centred interview and the interview guideline
  • 6.4.3 Postscript and transcription
  • 6.4.4 Consideration of ethical issues
  • 6.5 Data analysis
  • 6.5.1 Defining types and typologies
  • 6.5.2 The stage model of constructing empirically grounded types
  • 6.6 Quality criteria
  • 7. Empirical Findings
  • 7.1 The interviewees’ objective situation
  • 7.1.1 Description of interviewees’ objective biographical backgrounds
  • 7.1.2 Description of services offered to interviewees
  • 7.2 Analysing dimension “Appropriation of the German minimum income scheme”
  • 7.2.1 Manifestation “Laity”
  • 7.2.2 Manifestation “Expertise”
  • 7.2.3 Summary of the analysing dimension “Appropriation of the German minimum income scheme”
  • 7.3 Analysing dimension “Life planning regarding benefit receipt”
  • 7.3.1 Manifestation “Short-term organisation”
  • 7.3.2 Manifestation “Long-term re-organisation”
  • 7.3.3 Summary of the analysing dimension “Life planning regarding benefit receipt”
  • 7.4 The typology “Long-term beneficiaries’ appropriations of the German minimum income scheme for exiting benefit receipt”
  • 7.4.1 Type “Overstrained Working-Off”
  • 7.4.2 Type “Separated Implementing”
  • 7.4.3 Type “Established Awaiting”
  • 7.4.4 Type “Institutionalised Rebuilding”
  • 7.4.5 Comparison of the types
  • 8. Conclusion
  • 8.1 The link between beneficiaries’ appropriations of the German minimum income scheme and their life planning
  • 8.2 Contributions of this study
  • 8.3 Practical implications
  • 9. References
  • 10. Annex
  • 10.1 Overview of interviewees’ objective biographical backgrounds
  • 10.1.1 Interviewees 1–11
  • 10.1.2 Interviewees 2–22
  • 10.2 Overview of services offered to interviewees
  • 10.2.1 Interviewees 1–11
  • 10.2.2 Interviewees 2–22
  • 10.3 Empirical regularities of the two analysing dimensions and their combinations
  • 10.3.1 Interviewees 1–11
  • 10.3.2 Interviewees 2–22
  • Acknowledgements

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1.  Introduction

Even though welfare states have put tremendous efforts towards the activation of persons relying on minimum income benefits, poverty trends point to the fact that activation policies underachieve (Vandenbroucke & Vleminckx, 2011) and even contribute to an increase in poverty (Cantillon, 2011). This is also mirrored in the dynamics within the German minimum income protection for employable persons. Long-term benefit receipt, or entitlements with durations of at least two years1, is a dominant phenomenon in the German minimum income scheme (“Arbeitslosengeld II”; in the following: the German MIS), which covers all households in need with at least one working-age, employable person2. Besides the phenomenon of revolving door effects of exiting and re-entering the German MIS caused by instable out-of-benefit employment (Bruckmeier, Graf, & Rudolph, 2010; Buntenbach, 2009; Koller & Rudolph, 2011), long-term benefit receipt has been a profound problem since the introduction of the German MIS, which is reflected in high risks of solidification of entitlement and high risks of staying in benefit receipt (Graf, 2007; Graf & Rudolph, 2009). In 2014, 71% of all employable beneficiaries have been entitled to benefits of the German MIS for at least 21 months in the last 24 months (Bundesagentur für Arbeit, 2015b). In this context, long-term benefit receipt cannot just be reduced to the issue of long-term unemployment, which covers unemployment spells of twelve months and more. This is because only every fourth long-term beneficiary can actually be considered as long-term unemployed. Many long-term beneficiaries make their experiences of not being unemployed within entitlement due to participations in ← 17 | 18 → long-term trainings and job creation schemes, marginal employments3 and temporary inabilities to work (Bruckmeier, Lietzmann, Rothe, & Saile, 2015). In fact, finishing entitlement by taking up employment can be difficult as employment activities do not necessarily lead to a significantly higher income (Bäcker, Eichhorst, Gerlach, & Gerlinger, 2015, pp. 20–1). Even incomes from employment, which would allow single households to exit entitlement, might be insufficient for households with multiple members to overcome neediness, which is assessed at the household level (Koller & Rudolph, 2011, pp. 2–3).

In the field of dynamic poverty research, duration and continuity of benefit receipt have been considered as discrete dimensions for the first time (Leisering & Leibfried, 1999). In addition to processes of social exclusion and marginalisation, all forms of entitlement careers, including exits from benefit receipt, have been considered (Ludwig, 1996)4. In this regard, the reasons for continuing benefit receipt were examined. While the concepts of welfare dependency or poverty traps could be refuted, which hypothesised that continuing benefit receipt could be explained by beneficiaries’ decisions to stay in entitlement as this is for different reasons more attractive than leaving it (Ellwood & Bane, 1994; Gebauer, 2007; Gebauer & Vobruba, 2003; Leisering & Leibfried, 1999), human capital oriented approaches were confirmed. Gangl (1998) found out that leaving benefit receipt by taking up employment was determined by individual factors related to the labour market like vocational qualification, employment status, health condition and having care responsibilities as a single parent. Likewise, Achatz and Trappmann (2011) identified for beneficiaries of the German MIS several individual reasons for continuing benefit receipt, i.e. having a migration background, a lack of qualification, health problems, age as well as being a long-term beneficiary. Long-term benefit receipt itself can be considered as such a barrier due to devaluating human capital and a lack of investment in the same (ibid.).

Reforms of minimum income schemes were an attempt to address such individual reasons for benefit receipt. In general, minimum income (or social assistance) schemes have been extensively investigated, compared and typified in the past two decades (Bahle, Hubl, & Pfeifer, 2011; Eardley, Bradshaw, Ditch, Gough, & Whiteford, 1996a, 1996b; Gough, 2001; Gough, Bradshaw, Ditch, Eardley, ← 18 | 19 → & Whiteford, 1997; Saraceno, 2002). They “can have a broad and a specific meaning. Broadly, it delimits means- or income-tested benefits as distinguished from benefits based on membership rights or insurance claims. (…) More narrowly defined, social assistance provides a minimum income to all members of society (universal) or to selected groups (categorical) such as the elderly. This minimum income protection aims at securing an income of last resort.” (Bahle, Pfeifer, & Wendt, 2010, p. 448) As a result of the Hartz5 reforms in the early 2000s, the minimum income system of Germany changed from a dual social assistance system providing “categorical assistance schemes for specific groups, supplemented with a general safety net” (Gough et al., 1997, p. 36) to a more differentiated system resulting in higher numbers of beneficiaries and increased expenditures (Bahle et al., 2011; Immervoll, 2010). Wage-related and tax-funded unemployment assistance and the minimum income scheme social assistance were merged to the German MIS. In a broader context, these reforms can be understood as a general change of unemployment protection which was marked by three features: the homogenisation of unemployment benefits due to the increasing relevance of minimum income benefits, the re-categorisation of risks as beneficiaries do not necessarily have to be unemployed, and activation in the form of labour market programs for working-age persons (Clasen & Clegg, 2011; Dingeldey, 2011b). As Germany has been understood as the model of a conservative welfare state characterised by an emphasis on insurance-based social protection that is backed up with a general minimum income scheme (Esping-Andersen, 1990, 1999), these developments were, on the one hand, seen as a move away from this model (Fleckenstein, 2008; Hinrichs, 2010), and, on the other hand, assessed as a way to preserve it (Clasen & Goerne, 2011; Clegg, 2007).

By adding activation policies to the provision of passive benefits, the institutional context of minimum income schemes was broadened. These policies include labour market and social services directed at enabling beneficiaries to labour market integration as well as stricter criteria for taking up employment, specific conditions of conduct and a sanction system aiming at demanding beneficiaries’ cooperation to exit entitlement (Dingeldey, 2007, 2011a; Eichhorst, Kaufmann, Konle-Seidl, & Reinhard, 2008). In this regard, it is argued that “individualisation is invoked as one of the most relevant historical pressures underlying the “activation turn” in social and labour market services” (Borghi & van Berkel, 2007a, ← 19 | 20 → p. 355), which means that activation is considered to be embedded in the process of individualisation. The approach of individualised activation focuses on the individual beneficiary in order to increase chances and effectiveness of an exit from entitlement (van Berkel & Valkenburg, 2007). The overall underlying assumption is that beneficiaries, who are targeted with activation policies, can be enabled to conduct and influence their lives accordingly (Serrano Pascual, 2007, pp. 20–1). Individualisation as such is a central concept in sociology that refers to different historical developments and to a large variety of meanings (Junge, 1996, 2002). Setting aside previous developments of modernity, i.e. domestication, rationalisation and differentiation (cf. Junge, 1996, pp. 733–5), individualisation can generally be understood as the process in which “the individual becomes the reference point for itself and society” (Junge, 2002, p. 7, own translation). This also means that life planning has become self-reflexive due to seeing one’s biographical situation as a product of one’s own actions and decisions (Junge, 1996, p. 741). In fact, individuals started to increasingly understand their life as a life course they could purposefully organise (Leisering & Walker, 1998). This general trend of self-realisation has soon turned into a structural demand towards individuals, which subjectively can become an excessive demand resulting in negative consequences like “symptoms of inner emptiness, of feeling oneself to be superfluous, and of absence of purpose” (Honneth, 2004, p. 467). Individuals are expected to plan for their lives, to perceive their identities as flexible and to make investments in this regard (ibid., pp. 472–4).

Ludwig (1996) showed that beneficiaries of social assistance, the predecessor of the German MIS, were mainly concerned with two separate actions fields of solving institutional problems, which we refer to as appropriations of an institutional context, and solving biographical problems, which we refer to as individual life planning regarding benefit receipt. In our understanding, appropriations of an institutional context are the outcome of a socialisation process (Hurrelmann, 1988, 2012) and can be defined as a manner of beneficiaries’ ability “to act within socially prescribed role expectations” (Hitlin & Elder, 2007, p. 176) determined by this institutional context. Secondly, individual life planning is defined as individuals’ “ability to formulate and pursue life plans” (Shanahan & Elder, 2002, p. 147, cited in Hitlin & Elder, 2007, p. 183), that is the realisation of meaningful connections of their past and future lives in the present (Geissler, 2004, pp. 105–6). While both fields remained rather unrelated in social assistance, individualisation policies imply that beneficiaries of the German MIS have to link both fields with each other as they are requested to solve individual reasons for continuing benefit receipt by means of the institutional context of the German MIS. ← 20 | 21 → More specifically, individualised policies are based on implicit assumptions how beneficiaries are expected to process with policies and how they shall plan for their lives. First, beneficiaries are requested to improve their individual employability in order to leave benefit receipt by making use of tailor-made, integrated services. Second, they are made individually responsible for exiting entitlement by imposing conditions of conduct, which they have to meet in order to prevent welfare dependency. Third, beneficiaries shall participate in case workers’ assessments of their personal situations in order to enable them to specify reasons for continuing benefit receipt and adequate solutions for finishing it (Borghi & van Berkel, 2007a; Valkenburg, 2007; van Berkel & Valkenburg, 2007).

We argue that the functioning and probably the success of individualised policies, first and foremost, relies on the beneficiaries’ ability to translate them into a meaningful basis for their life planning. This is critical for two reasons. Firstly, life planning can be considered as an activity at the individual level in the first place (Hitlin & Elder, 2007). As a result, individual life planning and institutional demands to life planning seem to contradict each other as either “it is the political process that defines problems, causes and solutions, and limits the active role of citizens to cooperating in the process of policy delivery (…) (o)r it is the case that policies put citizens in charge, and accept that this has consequences for the way problems are defined, solutions are found and social policy is delivered” (Valkenburg, 2007, p. 39). Secondly, recent studies point to difficulties with regard to processing with individualised policies. Integrated services have to be converted by beneficiaries (Bonvin & Farvaque, 2007), conditions of conduct neglect other roles and responsibilities of beneficiaries (Wright, 2012) and case workers’ practices impede beneficiaries’ participation by limiting the duration of meetings and the number of contacts (Garsten, Jacobsson, & Sztandar-Sztanderska, 2016). In contrast to approaches that remain at the institutional level to explain the shortcomings of activation policies (cf. Cantillon, 2011; Vandenbroucke & Vleminckx, 2011), we want to investigate beneficiaries’ actual ability to meet implicit assumptions of individualised policies, which are based on a certain image of beneficiaries as autonomous individuals (Serrano Pascual, 2007). Examining beneficiaries’ appropriations will show how they are able to make use of integrated services, meet conditions of conduct and inform their case workers on their personal situation. Investigating beneficiaries’ life planning regarding benefit receipt will depict if their plans consider exiting benefit receipt by improving individual employability, preventing welfare dependency as well as taking into account other reasons and solutions identical to the ones specified by their case workers. Last but not least, finding meaningful relationships between ← 21 | 22 → both aspects will furthermore reveal consequences of these policies for beneficiaries’ efforts directed at exiting entitlement.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Activation Social assistance Integrated services Conditionality Personalisation
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 258 pp., 6 fig. b/w, 16 tables

Biographical notes

Norbert Petzold (Author)

Norbert Petzold was research fellow at the Department of Social Sciences at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany. His research interests are social inclusion, minimum income protection, and activation.


Title: Appropriations of the German Minimum Income Scheme and Life Planning