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By obliging social assistance recipients to do voluntary work, the government hopes to ease their entry into the labour market. However, this policy seems to be having the opposite effect as people become attached to their voluntary jobs over time and prioritise the interests of society above their own. This is the conclusion of a doctoral study conducted by Thomas Kampen, who will be obtaining a doctorate on Friday, 12 December at the University of Amsterdam.

In the government's view, participation in voluntary activities should lower the threshold for entering the job market and help social assistance recipients develop a sense of responsibility. But in fact, volunteers living on social assistance rarely find paid employment. What's gone wrong?

Against the background of the Netherlandsā€™s transition from a welfare state to a participation society, Kampen studied what doing a lesser or greater degree of voluntary work meant to people on social assistance. Using in-depth interviews with social assistance recipients in five municipalities (Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Leeuwarden, Nijmegen and Zaanstad), Kampen examined how voluntary work promoted empowerment and employability. Since 2007, these five cities have been actively pursuing policies aimed at getting social assistance recipients involved in voluntary work, ranging from compulsory orders with possible penalties for refusal (Amsterdam) to incentive payments (Nijmegen).  

Voluntary work as a refuge

The majority of those interviewed reported experiencing the loss of paid employment as a personal failing, which itself lowered their expectations of voluntary work leading to a paid job. The hopes raised by meeting new people and doing new tasks in the voluntary domain later ebbed away with the lack of perspectives. 'There is no guidance or mediation available when people on social assistance are ready to take the next step. As a result, they settle into their roles as volunteers and the voluntary work becomes a refuge to escape from the labour market', explains Kampen. 'It's even the case that the positive aspects of the voluntary work widen the gap to paid employment as social assistance recipients often attach greater significance and meaning to their voluntary work than to paid work. Moreover, they savour the relaxed atmosphere that they feel is often missing in the world of paid work and they start identifying more and more with their status as volunteer.' Because social assistance recipients value the social importance of voluntary work, getting them to take paid work requires an acknowledgement of their personal merits.

Injured life stories

A second requirement is the acknowledgement that their life stories have been injured. The stories collected by Kampen show social assistance recipients suffering from feelings of inferiority, humiliation and paternalism. Voluntary work contributes in a number of ways to their empowerment. 'It breaks them out of the cycle of inactivity that made their inferiority palpable and undermined their self-confidence', according to Kampen. 'People on social assistance want their injured life stories to be healed. They also view their voluntary work as a way to give back for help they received in the past. This is a far cry from the future-focus of the motivating welfare state that emphasises social investment and policy centred around the development of a person's sense of responsibility, values and self-confidence.'


Mr T.G. Kampen: Verplicht vrijwilligerswerk. De ervaringen van bijstandscliƫnten met een tegenprestatie voor hun uitkering. Supervisor: Prof. E.H. Tonkens. Co-supervisor: Prof. W.G.J. Duyvendak.

Time and location

The doctoral thesis defence ceremony will take place on Friday, 12 December at 10:00.

Location: Agnietenkapel, Oudezijds Voorburgwal 231, Amsterdam.