This is why some people get on welfare sooner than others

Erasmus campus
A man walks around with an Albert Heijn bag at a tram stop.
Jelte Lagendijk

Many of the young people who depend on benefits have parents and sometimes even grandparents who were also dependent on benefits. Why is that? Prof. Anne Gielen, professor of Labour Economics and Policy, conducts research into this phenomenon.

It has been known for some time that relatively many children of parents who were in a benefit situation later also fall back on benefits. Statistics Netherlands (CBS) reported on this back in 2015. It is a phenomenon that also occurs in Rotterdam, a pluralistic city with major social disparities.

Likelihood of intergenerational unemployment differs from group to group

According to Prof. Anne Gielen, it is evident that there are groups that have fewer opportunities than others. "The phenomenon of several generations of a family being dependent on benefits is more common among certain groups than others."

Causes for this social inequality are not easy to give. It could be that parents and children share certain characteristics, such as genes or living environment, which make them both more likely to become benefit dependent. However, there may also be a direct causal effect. Parents who rarely or never had a job may be less able to help their children with, for example, writing a job application.

And there may be a psychological aspect. Perhaps people experience less stigma from being unemployed if their parents were unemployed too. Gielen says: "But it can also be the other way around, that you do everything you can to avoid ending up in the same situation. Is inequality mainly passed on from parent to child? Or do grandparents also play a role in this?"

Anne Gielen

"When grandfathers have started working through reform, their grandchildren score higher on average on the Cito-test"

Anne Gielen

Professor of Labor Economics and Policy

Positive impact of social security reforms on future generations

In her research, Anne Gielen focuses on social security reforms that have taken place over the last few decades. What are the consequences for children and grandchildren if their parents’ or grandparents’ benefits change? To give an example: in 2004 the Unemployment Insurance Act (WW) was reformed. People over the age of 57.5 now also had an obligation to seek work. This led to higher labour market participation among older men, who often act as childminders for grandchildren.

Gielen says: "Our research shows that the reform has a positive effect. If the grandfather started working because of the reform, his grandchild scores - on average - higher on the Cito test. Other studies also show a multi-generational effect of social security reforms. We measure a broad scale of well-being factors, including job status, education, health and criminal behaviour."

'Quid pro quo' for social assistance payments can have a positive effect

In Rotterdam, people who have been on welfare for a long time can be asked to carry out a social activity in return. Gielen looked at what that does to these citizens. "It is quite life changing, but can have a positive effect. The work gives some people a certain pride and, moreover, something to do. But there are also reasons why people do not like it at all."

More generally, the professor believes it is important to realise that you cannot generalise in this matter. Every reform is different, every setting is different and every person is different. "When invalidity benefit was cut back in the mid-1990s, many people found work again, which also had an effect on younger generations. But you have to relate that intervention to that time, when benefits were much more generous."

Vrouw aan de kade van de Maas

Social Inequality

Anne Gielen

"Ultimately, we hope to know what we can do to give people equal opportunities though"

Anne Gielen

Professor of Labor Economics and Policy

Understanding of the causes of benefit entitlement across generations

The various studies provide many pieces of the puzzle, according to Gielen. Small pieces of the puzzle that, in time, will contribute to an understanding of the causes of benefit entitlement across generations. "Ultimately, we hope to know what we can do to give people equal opportunities. In other words: how can we take away that little backpack you were born with because your parents did this or that?"

Overall, the link between science and practice remains essential in Gielen’s research. "We feed politicians with our vision. Conversely, we hear what current problems exist in practice. But the priority is clear: we must do something about the inequality of opportunity in our society. That is my drive to keep working hard on it."


  • prof.dr. (Anne) AC Gielen

    Anne C. Gielen is Full Professor at the Department of Ecnomics at the Erasmus School of Economics, Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam. She obtained her PhD in…
    prof.dr. (Anne) AC Gielen

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