(Un)employment and workfare schemes in rural Hungary – a longitudinal study of the regulative changes of the public work programme

The consecutive governments increasingly see the main answers to long-term unemployment in the creation of short-term low-paid jobs in the public work programme, the presently most popular workfare scheme. Similar to other workfare programmes it makes social benefits for long-term unemployed dependent on participation in publicly sponsored communal employment. In most cases it involves low-skilled temporary jobs provided by local governments, paying salaries below minimum wage. While in Hungary local governments could organise such public work schemes since the early 1990s, it was the ‘Road to work’ programme introduced in 2009 by the former socialist government that made this unemployment measure widespread. It made participation in the scheme compulsory for active-aged and “able” aid beneficiaries, who since then could no longer receive any form of regular social aid/unemployment support if they refuse work in the programme.

Alike to similar workfare measures, the programme aimed to tackle ‘welfare dependency’ by instigating the permanent unemployed to take up work instead of “relying on benefits”. Based on the assumption that long-term absence from the labour market largely contributes to social marginalisation, the programme was furthermore seen as a major solution for the social integration of a growing portion of the unemployed poor. Thus in addition to helping unemployed re-enter the labour market and mainstream society, participation in the scheme was also held to develop the required ‘work ethic’ or morale needed for this. As such, it not only strengthened the ‘social participation through paid-work’ dogma often concomitant of neoliberal social reforms, but also sought to contend the growing social tensions of “good hard-working” citizens towards “lazy beneficiaries” taking advantage of an “overly beneficial” aid system.

The present administration, however, added a further element to this usual and often criticised workfare programme, which makes its study especially relevant. It not only made the scheme more punitive and expansive, but has increasingly utilised it as a major solution for low labour force participation of the country. Whilst the current government promotes an active agenda for solving the high inactivity rate, in the past years the majority of all jobs were in fact established through the public work programme (Busch, Cseres-Gergely, and Neumann 2013), offering only temporary and socially supported jobs. In line with this new agenda, and as a reaction to heavy criticism against the former scheme for “spending tax-payers’ money” on ineffective meaningless jobs, the rhetoric has also changed. The most important goal of the programme now is to create value through work, i.e. to accustom “idle” people to do “valuable” and “meaningful” work, hence fulfilling their citizens’ responsibility of contributing to the country’s economic wealth.

It however bids for a series of questions that have relevance for both policy making and social scientific engagements. What makes work “valuable” (or more “valuable” than others), for whom, and how is it related to specificities of local contexts? How successful can a policy be in making work valuable (or creating valuable work) through a workfare programme? And what effect does such an endeavour have on people’s perceptions of their work outside the programme?

This paper engages with these questions by examining the implementation of this workfare programme in two rural localities chosen from particularly disadvantaged regions of Hungary. Whilst critiques of similar workfare programmes from a spatial perspective are numerous (e.g. Eick, Mayer, and Sambale 2003; Peck 2001a; Sunley, Martin, and Nativel 2006), very few of them examines the results of actual local implementations in a more integrative manner, especially in relation to local socio-economic contexts. What is even more disturbing, hardly any is concerned with particularly marginalised areas, where in fact such programs are the most needed and often constitute the dominant employment option. Relying on prolonged fieldwork in two villages, I seek to address these short-comings. The present study assesses the local effects of this workfare scheme (and its recent changes) in particularly remote, marginalised areas by focusing on two specific aspects: (1) what effects the radically different organisation of the programme in the two localities have on the social inclusion of the participants; (2) the effects of the programme are assessed in relation to the local socio-economic contexts by drawing on local conceptualisations of what is “valuable work”.

In the following, first I situate the Hungarian workfare programme within similar tendencies in the international arena and point to the broader relevance and specificities of the present study. After this the text is divided into two major parts. The first will critically examine the local effects of the 2009 ‘Road to work’ programme in the two ruralities, and the second part will focus on the more recent changes introduced by the conservative FIDESZ legislation in 2011. In both cases, the local organisation of the programme will be examined and the way this can affect the social inclusion of the participants on the one hand and local views on what is valuable work and how this influences other work options locally on the other.

Alexandra Szőke

Researcher at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle Saale, Germany

  • Topic of the paper:A ‘Road to Work’? – Public work and (un)employment in the Hungarian countryside
  • Research interests:social security and welfare, state rescaling and local state formation, state restructuring and transformation of the countryside in Hungary, rural development, rural citizenship, post-socialism and neoliberalism in CEE
  • Email:alexa.szoke@gmail.com