Gijs Vonk stands up for those living on the fringes of society. Tenacious, he enters the social debate with enthusiasm. His work and practice have earned him a nomination for the national Huibregtsen Prize, but also accusations of being an activist. A portrait of the Professor in Social Security Law, who cannot accept that the law sometimes leads to poverty.
Text: Eelco Salverda, Communication UG / Photos: Elmer Spaargaren
It’s no coincidence that Vonk has the collected works of Kafka on his bookshelves. Kafka, who wrote about entangled and estranged loners who get caught up in a bizarre world of bureaucratic rules. The parallel with Vonk’s own work is clear. In the past few years he has often stuck up for the disadvantaged and fought against legislation that puts their legal position at risk.
Vonk is an easy talker. ‘Shall I start? Oh, you want to ask questions, go ahead.’ Wordy, sometimes thoughtful, weighing his words in search of the correct answer. As is fitting for a lawyer. An academic too, who counters questions with more questions and makes both himself and his partner in the conversation think hard. ‘When I became a professor, I delivered an inaugural lecture on the basic right to social security. But what is that? In essence it means that citizens should not become less equal just because they receive welfare. But in practice the legal position of welfare recipients is becoming weaker and weaker. Of course they have obligations, but they are not inferior. Elevating people out of poverty should be the goal.’
Ten years ago, Vonk made a change. From being head of legal affairs at the SVB social insurance bank, which is responsible for the payment of pensions and child benefits, he became professor at the UG. A deliberate choice? Switching from implementation to policy? Vonk has to think about it. ‘I see it largely as a transition to creativity. Instead of just doing I ask why. As professor, I have more intellectual freedom. That is hugely energizing and inspiring. I can finally think outside the box.’ Vonk has definitely come up with non-standard approaches.
At the start of the decade, the tone of the welfare debate hardened. Under the Dutch Participation Act, those receiving welfare were required to make an adequate contribution in return. Vonk joined in the discussion over poverty and sanctions and did not shy away from big terms: ‘intimidating language’, ‘repressive welfare state’, ‘symbol politics’. “Welfare came knocking at my door”: “We’re not being heard. They’re only talking about us.” They have a point, I thought. We must be able to have a free debate about this, at university too.” Vonk reserved a room to meet welfare recipients and interest groups. “What I heard there was a real eye-opener.”
”Suddenly I realized that the world is so different from the world of books and policy documents,” Vonk explains. “I saw their expectations, their anxieties, their problems and lives. It was refreshing to think about law from this perspective.” More publications followed, as well as a speaking slot in the local municipality council meeting, for example. His position attracted attention and media such as Dutch current affairs bulletin Nieuwsuur and national newspapers sought him out. An activist approach, admits Vonk. But he nuances that it was activism with a purpose: to consider law from a different perspective, enriched with the experiences of people who are the subject of the legislation. “At university, you should look at law critically. Because science is independent, it can develop its own view on society. It would simply not be appropriate to blindly accept the official words of authority.”
Has he not allowed himself to be used? “Yes, definitely,” he admits frankly. “I saw that risk coming. But I never let anyone force their opinions on me, I’m strong enough for that. And I definitely used welfare recipients too in a sense, to pick up information.” How do colleagues react to this method of working? “Initially with raised eyebrows. “What’s he doing, now?” But if you look at, for example, the issue of earthquakes, then you can see others at the University doing exactly the same. That’s also an expression of the involvement of science in society. As long as we don’t lose plurality and as long as everyone can work on the basis of their own understanding, there’s no problem.”
Is the vast different in welfare policies between municipalities a coincidence? “No, local variation is one of the components of our democracy. If there is indeed a basic standard. If you give a degree of freedom to municipal officials, the people who carry out the law, then this leads to a more humane system because they really have an insight into reality.’ But insights also differ in terms of the basic standard. Sometimes law creates poverty, Vonk once said. Paradoxical? “Yes, it shouldn’t be the case,” he smiles. “Many regulations are focused on bans, on fines. Social security only exists if you satisfy requirements. But we’re talking about people who are often the least able to meet these requirements, because they face multiple problems. And when a sanction is applied, we tell them: “you brought it on yourself”. But is the termination of welfare the solution to their problems? Or does this actually create mistrust and fraud? It is now too often a case of cat and mouse.” What Vonk wants to say is that current legislation leads to distrust on both sides.
Vonk’s criticism of the mandatory welfare recipients’ contribution and the strict enforcement policy in social security has now become socially acceptable. The Ombudsman, judges, academics and many politicians also believe that the policy needs updating. He is therefore now analysing the welfare system itself. Vonk argues for another form of welfare: fewer rules, combined with a benefits system and more room for positive work incentives. ”More of a social worker approach. In Denmark, many successful experiments have been conducted in this area. With a benefits system, you have wider margins to fight the poverty trap, which arises when you go from benefits to work and the benefits become less. That is now my secret mission,” he says with twinkling eyes. Vonk’s working method has changed, but his goal remains the same: making welfare practical. Without “the hassle”, as he calls it himself.
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