In the United States, depending on which state you’re in, you can lose access to welfare for a variety of reasons—not getting a job quickly enough, living with someone with a criminal background, or failing a drug test. In the Netherlands, while people usually don’t lose welfare altogether, they could still be fined—in some cases, for not looking or smelling good enough to be employable. And one Dutch researcher who studied the impact of this policy in its first two years says it’s leading to some arbitrary and sexist fines.
The act that governs welfare in the Netherlands was updated in 2015 to include many new restrictions, including a policy that says that those who hurt their chances of employment through the way they dress, groom, and behave—for example, ragged clothing, strong body odor, or irrational behavior—could be fined, sometimes hundreds of euros a month for several months, if the welfare worker he or she encounters isn’t satisfied.
Although welfare is becoming more conditional on many factors in other countries, rules about appearance—the idea that recipients should look worthy of this money—aren’t usually formalized. “It’s less and less a right and is more and more where you have to perform certain behaviors and practices. But as far as we know, the Netherlands is the only country where they made it into written law,” says Marguerite van den Berg, a social researcher at the University of Amsterdam who studies dress and presentation in the labor market and how this affects women, and recently how this code is being carried out in practice.
The aesthetic code update to the Netherlands’ welfare policy was a small piece of a larger restructuring. The revision shifts responsibility to the municipalities instead of the central government, and it restructures welfare so it’s tied more closely to an individual’s employment journey, a way to hold him or her over while finding a new job and getting off welfare. But even with an aesthetic condition, the Netherlands still has an all-encompassing safety net, which is much more robust than the United States’. Before people end up on welfare, they first get unemployment benefits for up to 38 months. (Unemployment is capped at 26 weeks in the U.S.) Moreover, it is actually unknown how many people are actually fined for “inappropriate” dress or behavior. “The law is quite extreme, but at the same time it’s not as if people left and right are getting sanctions for the way they look,” said van den Berg. “This law is, however, used as a threat to have people change their appearance.”
The aesthetic code is just one change among many making the Netherlands’ policy look more and more like the U.S.’ (and restrictions here continue to multiply).
Certain parts of these reforms, such as teaching people about appropriate professional attire, provide guidance people might not get elsewhere that could help them find work. But according to van den Berg’s March 2018 study, welfare recipients were subjected to caseworker decisions that often seemed random. For example, one man was fined for showing up to an interview for a construction-industry job dressed in a suit.
The policy, van den Berg found, also has sexist implications. It seems especially destined to hurt women, who get judged more on the way they look and already spend more time on nearly all aspects of their appearance than men do. Moreover, when women wear the same thing every day, they’re likely to be scrutinized and criticized for not caring about their appearance, so they have to do this work again and again. Van den Berg and her colleagues note that caseworkers paid special attention to women’s cleavage, emphasizing to female welfare recipients that the perception of them is changed when they’re not covered up. The researchers describe the caseworkers’ approach: “Sometimes you see a photo on a CV and you see too much of a woman’s cleavage. Then, in interaction with the client, I try to show her: ‘Look, do you see the difference between when I put my hand over your cleavage in the photo and when you can see the cleavage? This is how you learn how you come across.’ ” Van den Berg calls this pressure “aesthetic labor,” which she defines as the everyday (and usually unpaid) labor of presenting the way required by society. “There’s much more ambiguity for women when it comes to dressing, and that’s not only the case for working women, but all around. … Is my dress too short? Can I show my shoulders? Are sandals OK?” says van den Berg.
Poverty, the very force putting people on welfare, is a gendered issue. Most of the world’s poor are women, and women are more likely to rely on welfare than men. In the Netherlands, the number of female-headed households in poverty began rising rapidly in the late 1980s, with more than 60 percent of households with long-term low income headed by a woman. They were more likely to be the sole caregiver for small children, so any money they get is spread thinner and it is more difficult for them to participate in the paid labor market. This means women are more likely to need welfare and then more likely to be judged and fined for the way they look.
And by putting the focus on participants’ dress, the reforms take the focus off structural causes of unemployment and poverty and place it onto superficial issues—including teaching welfare recipients to deal with uncertain economic situations by practicing optimism and positive thinking and telling them to following their dreams, according to a February 2018 study by van den Berg. And of course, the policy furthers the notion that people are on welfare because they haven’t been making the right choices or navigating the job market the way they should be.
Over the past few decades, but especially after the Great Recession, personal responsibility has become a crucial part of welfare systems around the world, and a country like the Netherlands moving in that direction is particularly concerning. “It’s important that we have welfare. But when you use that welfare, it’s expected of you that you do what you can do to reduce your reliance on welfare. It’s a two-way street,” says Rotterdam Vice Mayor Maarten Struijvenberg, of the right-wing party Leefbaar Rotterdam (Livable Rotterdam), who is responsible for the city’s economic affairs.
And if that’s the case, the changes don’t look good. Especially for women.