The FUA of Amsterdam includes the municipality of Amsterdam and several other municipalities around the city that are closely linked to it and together create the Metropolitan Region of Amsterdam (MRA). The MRA spans the ‘daily urban system’ of Amsterdam, which is roughly the area within which the majority of the daily commutes takes place. Indeed, in many respects the MRA functions as a single city with interconnected housing and job markets for almost 2.5 million inhabitants. It is the strongest economic region in the country and it functions as a growth engine for the national economy, with roughly 300.000 businesses and 1.5 million jobs. Despite this, socio-economic inequality is still a big issue in the region.
Main challenges, trends and policies
The Netherlands in general, and the city of Amsterdam in particular, is subject to a severe housing crisis. Most affected are new entrants on the housing market such as young people, particularly if they cannot rely on parental support. Dutch housing policies are not well tailored to combat the housing crisis. The main national policy instruments have remained unchanged or have become more market oriented in recent years, thereby further enhancing the uneven outcomes on the housing market. In the city of Amsterdam on the other hand, housing policies are more focused on protecting vulnerable groups. Examples of this are the self-residence obligation, the 40-40-20 rule and the proposed reform of the social rental housing allocation system. Nevertheless, even for a city the size of Amsterdam, it remains difficult to really counteract structural economic and policy trends in the field of housing.
Although unemployment rates in the Netherlands and Amsterdam are comparatively low, employment opportunities are unevenly distributed. Particularly young people, disabled people, people with a low education and people with a migration background face a relatively high unemployment risk. Furthermore, the labour market has become highly flexible in recent years, resulting in insecurity and an increase in precarious jobs, particularly among the younger generations. Labour market policies come in various shapes (tailored to the local context) but mainly focus on activation and training of the unemployed.
The Dutch school system can be characterized as decentralized and segmented. Educational inequalities occur mostly along parental education, wealth and ethnic background lines and are reproduced across generations. These inequalities seem to be further enhanced by the fact that already at the age of 12, children are directed to a particular level of education (early tracking system). Both at the national level and the level of Amsterdam, current educational policies aim to increase the equality of opportunities. For this purpose, they offer support to vulnerable pupils and attempt to smoothen the transitions between the various levels of the education system, as well as between the education system and the labour market.
Both in the Netherlands and in Amsterdam, poverty is a persistent problem that unevenly plays out among socio-economic groups and neighbourhoods. Although the Dutch welfare state is supposed to provide a safety net for all its citizens (through unemployment benefits and social assistance), some recent policy reforms have aggravated the position of particular vulnerable groups, for example disabled people, unemployed young people or care-takers sharing a house. Within the framework of the ‘participation society’, policy interventions are focused at (re)integrating people in the labour market or in society in general. The city of Amsterdam has developed its own individualized and integrative version of these participation enhancing policies. This approach seems rather successful, although it remains difficult to reach all the potential policy recipients.
Discussion and main conclusions
- The national and global position of Amsterdam Metropolitan Region provides advantages, but also fuels inequalities. While the region kept growing even through the national recession in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the conditions of vulnerable citizens deteriorated, especially in terms of labour security and wage and wealth inequality.
- Among the more vulnerable we can find youth, low-educated people, migrants and women, and the highest levels of vulnerability can be found at the intersection of these characteristics. Moreover, twisted housing market dynamics crystallize socio-economic inequalities in the spatial realm, generating segregation, suburbanization of poverty and exclusion, even of youth not vulnerable in other fields.
- The Municipality of Amsterdam, in concert with other local social actors and in alignment with national guidelines and objectives, has developed in the last few years a long-term and integrated approach towards tackling inequalities. The objective is to achieve equality of opportunities for all Amsterdammers, and addressing the drivers of inequality at an earlier stage. This new approach has determined policy changes especially in the domains of education and social assistance, which have paid off in terms of reduction of youth unemployment, NEET youth and early school leavers, as well as more successful education pathways for vulnerable children.
- Unfortunately, the current Covid-19 driven economic downturn is generating new challenges that might be endangering these results, with more young people out of work and increased uncertainty for the future. Especially with regard to gender equality, we see that, while women fare better in education, their opportunities in the labour market are still hampered by cultural factors pertaining to the division of care work, and the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted this divide very clearly.
- Highly localized policies in the welfare domain can be seen as a danger to fairness in the distribution of social assistance, resulting in spatial injustice at the regional level. Indeed, if each municipality takes care of ‘their own poor’, then levels of protection and opportunities are geographically differentiated, which can also have an impact on people’s mobility across the country.
- A critical aspect of local policy action is that even the most successful local policies can only partially mitigate wider inequality dynamics. For example, however effective education programmes against inequality of opportunities in Amsterdam might be, youth will still be confronted with a fragmented and increasingly precarious national and international labour market, and with a highly comodified and unaffordable housing market.
- The range of policy programmes and activities carried out by the Municipality of Amsterdam is extremely wide and detailed and, while the collaboration and integration between different municipal departments could be improved, there is a very clear and substantial effort towards the coordination of policies and initiatives across different domains. However, change is slow and integration is not always possible due to different levels of action.
- In the Netherlands, and in Amsterdam in particular, policy evaluation is taken quite seriously. Several policy experiments are linked to university research and both internal and external assessment is carried out on the largest policy initiatives, both at the national and at the local level. In an effort to reduce fragmentation and the constant re-invention of the wheel, databases of “provenly effective” policy measures, projects and tools are available for local governments and social actors to draw inspiration from.
- Among the ambitions of the Municipality of Amsterdam is the increased involvement of citizens in development processes and policymaking, and a number of initiatives are aimed at engaging specifically young people. It is clear that municipal action is geared towards increasing engagement with the aim of obtaining more effective, durable and widely shared and supported results in terms of policy and urban development.