Sociology teaches us the importance of understanding that all things have histories, and of course HECAT is no exception. Today we will start at the beginning (or as near to the beginning as we can get).
It was June 2012, the world was still reeling from the fallout of the global financial crisis. The received wisdom instructed governments to pursue a programme of governance whereby spending would be cut, and taxes would be raised. This, we were told would balance the budget and enable a quick recovery, this strategy was known as austerity.
Along with the range of cost saving measures came different ways of ‘doing’ government. The old model of welfare being universal (or almost universal) and unconditional (or almost unconditional) was to draw to a close. Ireland was facing rates of unemployment in excess of 15%, meaning that the tax take of the government was reduced (due to fewer people working) at a time when spending was increasing (due to more people claiming unemployment benefits) and, so the argument went: something would have to be done.
In 2011 a new coalition government was formed by the Fine Gael and Labour parties, and part of its strategy to reduce unemployment was the introduction of ALMP’s, or Active Labour Market Policies. The general argument was that, while in the immediate aftermath of 2007/2008 people had good reason to be unemployed, it was now almost five years later. It was time to put pressure on people to seek employment, which would aid in economic recovery. Like the austerity which inspired it, ALMP’s were as much a moral argument as they were an economic one. The unemployed were therefore characterised as ‘inactive’ (with its connotations of laziness), and required incentives and interventions in order to get a job, thereby becoming ‘active’.
Many of the schemes introduced by this coalition government have gone on to enjoy a level of infamy in Irish socio-political culture, but at the time while they were roundly criticised, it is also true that virtually everything every Irish government does is roundly criticised. There was a feeling that understanding was needed, consideration and analysis rather than immediately jumping to critique.
Thus in 2012, Ray Griffin (WIT), and Tom Boland (then at WIT, now at UCC), decided that they would run a summer project to study the experience of unemployment. This project was named the Waterford Unemployment Experiences Research Collaborative, and I can tell you that considerable effort was put in so that the acronym would spell ‘WUERC’ (pronounced ‘work’).
I don’t think anyone knew exactly what the project would produce, but our goal from the start was to understand unemployment. And a significant part of this was attempting to describe the experience of being unemployed. This sometimes caused confusion when we attempted to explain it to people, what did we mean the ‘experience’ of being unemployed? Unemployment, virtually by definition is a temporary state of being, when you are unemployed you are looking for work, and when you eventually find it then you are not unemployed anymore. But it was the very inability to speak about unemployment as a state of being that intrigued us, how could this experience be so common and yet go almost completely without qualitative or subjective description?
WUERC therefore recruited about a dozen undergraduate students who had finished their degrees and were about to graduate, I was in this group, along with Aisling Tuite who would go on to make a huge contribution towards the HECAT application and become an excellent researcher in her own right. To direct the students were half a dozen faculty members from WIT. Everyone who participated gave up their time for free, and we wished to inculcate our values of fairness and voluntarism into the project. WUERC had virtually no funding to speak of, though we were granted ethical approval by WIT to speak to the unemployed, which Waterford specifically, and the South-East generally had in abundance:
WIT also allowed us to use some of the rooms on the College St. Campus, which was very helpful to give us a place where we could meet and discuss our findings.
In-fact, part of what would make the project work so well were the dozen undergraduate students who were (in the very near future) going to graduate. As we had finished all our coursework, we were hurtling towards the labour market at breakneck speed. This gave us a unique opportunity to study the unemployment system from the inside, and observe the ALMP’s as they were used in practice (on us in fact).
The story of WUERC will continue on Monday when I will get into the inner workings of the project and how it worked in practice; stay tuned!