The pandemic has brought into focus the social contract between income and contribution which can underpin a solidaristic welfare state.
The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the future shape and function of our welfare architecture. It has exposed the impacts of decades of privatisation and cuts to public services in market-liberal welfare states, while the more universal Nordic welfare regimes have fared best through the crisis.
Temporary responses offer a glimpse of the changes that may be to come. In many states the balance has swung from the compensatory, enabling, and regulatory dimensions of welfare back towards ‘decommodification’. Some income supports were, for a time at least, enhanced in value and coverage and decoupled from job-search conditionality and threats of sanctions.
Universalism became manifest not only in widened coverage via expanded access to short-time-work schemes and introduction of quasi-basic income payments, but also through the loosening of conduct conditions requiring claimants to establish their bona fides as ‘good’ jobseekers—income support was instead provided on the basis of need. Universalism in this sense of decommodifying conditionality must be pivotal to any progressive reconfiguration of entitlements.
While welfare regimes differ in their effectiveness as safety nets, they all start from a background of labour as a commodity and are essentially productivist, attempting to reconcile social security with an agenda of economic growth and subsuming welfare within production for the market. Women, migrants, people with disabilities and others however suffer when labour-market participation is the primary pathway to inclusion and income support. Even the paragon of ‘enabling’ welfare models, the social-investment state, tends to legitimise expenditure that develops a future higher-productivity labour force.
The normative principle of universal entitlement, recognising the shared characteristic of individual human dignity, can guide a realignment of social security with patterns of participation that value care and sustain essential, reproductive work.
Jochen Clasen and Daniel Clegg present the spectrum of welfare conditionalities. Conditions of category restrict entitlements to sub-groups of citizens (those with disabilities, the unemployed and so on), conditions of circumstance restrict access to those eligible (means-testing or social-insurance contributory thresholds) and conduct conditions limit entitlements by behaviours (evaluated parenting practices or job search). These create stigma and barriers to income support, as do paternalistic narratives of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, which also position claimants as dependent citizens unable to help themselves.
The degree to which welfare systems are universal or targeted varies along these axes: some ‘screen in’ only the poorest; others ‘screen out’ only the wealthiest. Residual systems are characterised by tight conditions of conduct and eligibility which, as Bo Rothstein argues, can engender vicious social traps. Self-perceived contributors (taxpayers) are averse to helping claimants (perceived as ‘scroungers’), while clients must navigate an opaque and miserly system. More universal entitlements, with fewer conditionalities of conduct and eligibility, conversely engender virtuous circles of social trust, which support higher levels of taxation and greater investment in quality public services. Everyone pays in, according to means, and everyone benefits, according to need, in a transparent system.
Despite such merits, there remains debate about the political feasibility of universal entitlement. From a range of ideological perspectives, universal basic income (UBI) is seen as its pinnacle, removing any conditions of circumstance or conduct. A particular advantage is how it promotes choice, offering ‘income, free from stigma, sanctions and control’—an enviable objective for any income-support system.
UBI is however often oversold as a panacea for the crises of work and care. There are also questions about its affordability, whether it facilitates meaningful decommodification and whether it might supplement or substitute investment in public services. If the latter, UBI could actually intensify citizens’ reliance on market participation to meet essential needs.
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This focus on income reinforces the commodity basis of welfare, mistaking its proper ‘currency’. After Amartya Sen, ‘capabilities’ theorists argue that flourishing is better defined as real freedoms across a multitude of dimensions than one level of economic resources—income equality is no guarantee of equal freedom in this substantive sense.
A more politically feasible variant of universal entitlement is found in the half-way house of participation income (PI), a goal in its own right which can also leave open the door to UBI. The late Tony Atkinson proposed PI as a political compromise between UBI and the then-emerging dominance of the ‘workfare’ model. The key difference is PI’s retention of an element of conduct conditionality.
Critically, however, PI’s requirement for social contribution is far more encompassing than the narrow, work-related forms of conditionality of market-liberal welfare regimes. The range and variety of what is recognised as meaningful includes education, giving care, voluntary work, political participation, social reproduction, satisfying essential needs unmet by the market and environmental reproductive work. This is reflected in and valorises the social and community-based acts of solidarity evidenced during the pandemic: an ethic of care is promoted while decommodifying the conditions of conduct.
Although Atkinson perceived PI as a universal payment, to which people were entitled regardless of circumstance, other accounts allow of limiting access on the basis of need. Atkinson’s key objection to means-testing was its application at household level in male-breadwinner systems. This is particularly negative for women, denying them individual entitlement, a prerequisite for autonomy and equality. Liberal welfare regimes apply means-testing to residualise welfare by targeting entitlements on those below or around the poverty line. This stigmatises claimants, leading to lack of coverage of those who most need support through limited take-up.
Ensuring an absence of stigmatising, means-testing barriers to income supports is an important principle. Universal entitlement to services is often enacted as ‘free at the point of access’, where recipients repay through general taxation (in the case of universal health) or targeted taxation when a specific income threshold is reached (in the case of student loans).
Certain Covid-19 income supports demonstrate how eligibility can be assessed ex post and delivered without behavioural requirements. This was true of the relatively generous Irish Pandemic Unemployment Payment, automatically paid to all individual applicants, and Canada’s Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a temporary programme aiding 7.3 million Canadians lauded as a bureaucratic miracle.
Similar characteristics are found in Sarah Arnold’s call for a guaranteed income, based on minimum-income standards and without ‘conditionalities’ or ‘jumping through hoops’, so it is paid without means-testing at the point of access, with assessment ex post and any adjusting payment on a tapered basis if monthly earnings exceed €2,500. Such a modest-to-high income threshold is essential if the welfare payment is not to be residual or to ‘otherise’ recipients as impoverished dependents. Ex-post application of eligibility conditions removes barriers to getting support to people who need it quickly, while also enhancing affordability and political feasibility.
While Atkinson defended conditionality on grounds of political expediency, it also aligns normatively with principles of reciprocity in social co-operation. PI’s retention of an element of behavioural conditionality could, if poorly designed or implemented, foster paternalism, limit autonomy and be a source of stigma. However, if co-created and delivered in partnership with citizens it can enable flourishing by promoting what Francesco Laruffa calls ‘navigational agency’: the design should allow ‘individuals to refuse jobs that they do not value’ and engage in reproductive activities such as care-giving and political participation instead of, or alongside, employment.
While not unreservedly universal, a PI would go far towards decommodifying and de-stigmatising benefits, aligning entitlements to Ulrich Beck’s notion of ‘a multi-active’ society. In this sense, a PI is conceptually distinct from an employment-oriented, active-labour-market policy while trying to balance the dual objectives of universalism and social participation.
Our version of PI decouples social security from market participation, avoids the stigma of ex-ante, means-tested, household assessment and affordably complements universal basic services, enabling men and women to live, work and care differently in a more equal and flourishing society. Universal entitlement and collective provision, based on the right of access to services and income, flows over into citizen participation, local control and diverse models of ownership—reinforcing equity, efficiency, solidarity and sustainability.
This is part of a series on the coronavirus crisis and the welfare state supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung