Workfare and Attitudes toward the Unemployed: New Evidence on Policy Feedback from 1990 to 2018

Alexander Horn, Kevins Anthony, Kees van Kersbergen

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To what extent, and under what conditions, have workfare reforms shaped public opinion towards the unemployed? This article unpacks the punitive and enabling dimensions of the workfare turn and examines how changes to the rights and obligations of the unemployed have influenced related policy preferences. To do so, it presents a novel dataset on these reforms across a diverse set of welfare states and investigates potential feedback effects by combining our data with four waves of survey data from Europe and North America. Results suggest that while enabling measures generate more lenient attitudes towards the unemployed, punitive measures have no clear effect on public opinion – but they do accentuate the gap between the preferences of high- and low-income individuals. This leads us to conclude that the trend towards punitive and enabling measures since the 1980s has not broadly undermined solidarity with the unemployed, though it has increased income-based polarization.

Original languageEnglish
JournalComparative Political Studies
Pages (from-to)818-850
Number of pages33
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2024


  • policy feedback
  • public opinion
  • social policy
  • unemployment benefits
  • workfare


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