'If you are born for a dime, you will never become a quarter,' says an old Dutch proverb. In the year 2022, the theme of (un)equality of opportunity is high on the political agenda and at the centre of the public debate. But where do we stand today? Many of the young people who depend on benefits also had no job, neither their parents nor their grandparents. Anne Gielen, Professor of Labour Economics and Policy at the Erasmus School of Economics, conducts research into this phenomenon.
Is there such a thing as 'transferability' of benefits?
"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. CBS already reported on this in 2015. In Rotterdam this theme also plays a role, as a pluralistic city with large social differences. 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. The question is, of course, why."
What causes can you point to?
"They 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. 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 you experience less stigma from being unemployed if your parents were unemployed too. But it can also be the other way around, that you do everything you can to avoid ending up in the same situation. And is inequality mainly passed on from parent to child? Or do grandparents also play a role in this? In my research, I am trying to better understand this issue by studying causal relationships."
Can you tell us something about your research?
"In my studies, I focus on social security reforms that have taken place over the last few decades. In short, I want to know: if father's or mother's benefits change, what are the consequences for the children and grandchildren? To give an example: In 2004 the WW was reformed, partly to encourage older people to be more active in the labour market. One of the measures was that people older than 57.5 years now also had a duty to apply for a job. This led to higher labour market participation among the men in this group. This also had consequences for the family, because many older people are employed as babysitters for grandchildren. Our research shows that the reform has a positive effect on the school performance of grandchildren. If the grandfather started working because of the reform, his grandchild scores - on average - higher on the Cito test. It would go too far to explain the entire methodology here, but other studies also show a multi-generational effect of social security reforms. Incidentally, we broadly measure the factors that determine people's well-being. So not just whether you have a job and what kind of education you receive, but also, for example, how healthy you are and whether you have any criminal behaviour."
"How can we take away that backpack that you were born with because your parents did this or that?"
You examined the 'quid pro quo' for social assistance payments.
"In Rotterdam, people who have been on welfare for a long time can be asked to carry out a social activity in return. I wanted to know: what does that do to them? 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. The effects of this study have not yet been fully mapped out, so I am cautious about drawing conclusions. More generally, 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 the WAO 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. The various studies provide many pieces of the puzzle. In time, all those small pieces of the puzzle will contribute to an understanding of the causes of benefit entitlement across generations. And 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?
You are worried about the effect of corona on young people.
"I think our government needs to look very seriously at the effects of school closure and other restrictions on corona time. It is known that children from lower socio-economic backgrounds suffered more. We know from other settings that this kind of disadvantage sometimes translates into three subsequent generations. This means that in seventy years' time, we may see the unequal opportunities in the descendants of young people who have suffered from the virus. Corona was also an important theme in the Preadviezen 2021, which we presented to the government together with the Royal Society for State Studies."
"In seventy years' time, we may still see unequal opportunities among the descendants of young people who have suffered from corona"
So you advise the government?
"Among other things, I am involved in a steering committee of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, which looks at the effects of their policies. What can we learn from it, how do we proceed? And recently, I organised a workshop on inequality at the EUR. A dialogue between scientists, followed by a discussion with administrators from, among others, the municipality of Rotterdam and the ministries of SoZaWe and OCW [Education, Culture and Science]. The link between science and practice is essential. 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."