November 18, 2015, by Public Social Policy

Let’s Rephrase the Welfare Debate

by  Elena Genova, PhD candidate at the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham

The session on Welfare Reform at the 100 Days conference of Cameron’s Majority Government, organised by the International Centre for Public and Social Policy at the School of Sociology was far from a quiet, timid one. Indeed, the compelling presentations by Professor Bruce Stafford and Dr Jenni Cauvain on welfare cuts and housing respectively, were followed by a passionate debate. The latter sparked off with an audience member’s comment that the welfare system, designed in the 1940s is outdated and dysfunctional. The crux of his argument was that the system is not designed to recognise contribution, which makes it unequal as it is not the hard-working people of Britain who benefit from it.  Needless to say that the young man, who admitted to  being a Tory supporter, found himself in a predominantly left leaning crowd that directly targeted his argument.

However, what was interesting about this debate was not the obvious clash between two opposing positions but rather the language used in arguments provided by both sides, based on the term ‘contribution’. Sitting there and listening to the debate, I pondered over the meaning of ‘contribution’. I remembered a story of a few days ago when I posted on Facebook about having recently moved house. One of my very good friends, and an ardent Tory supporter with whom whilst being good friends we nonetheless clash on matters of equality and European mobility, asked me what my plan was after the move. “Well, I need to finally finish my thesis”, I replied. His response made me chuckle: “About time you finish it and start contributing to society”. In line with our constant banter and without thinking too much about it, I said: “I thought I already was!”

A few days later, sitting in that room at the conference this conversation came back to me. ‘Contribution’— what does it mean ‘to contribute’? How is ‘contribution’ measured? Who deserves to be recognised as contributing? Both the young Tory supporter at the conference and his opponents seemed to agree that ‘contribution’ was based on the number of years worked: while the first claimed that pensioners are most deserving, a representative of the latter pointed out that he was on Employment and Support Allowance and he has contributed by working for 15 years. Is it then measured by the impact of that contribution?

We live in a society under increasing pressure to measure and assess the ‘impact’ of ‘contribution’.  While in academia it has more to do with the quality of research produced, in everyday life this would be the quality of one’s membership in a society which determines their entitlement to welfare. Our obsession with measuring ‘contribution’ and ‘impact’ essentially draw a firm divisive line, categorising people into deserving and undeserving. Like many, I wondered whether we can fairly decide who is and who is not deserving. Being in the final year of my PhD, I thought of the young people in my position: while we have spent the last 7 to 10 years in education and attempting to contribute to knowledge, many of us will graduate and will face the situation of looking for a job with little or no work experience. Are we entitled to welfare? What about the many young people from underprivileged families and regions in the country who simply do not have access to any resources and opportunities? What about migrants and refugees? However, these questions, unfortunately fall in the trap of measuring ‘contribution’ on the basis of which the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ are determined.

By focusing on this, the welfare debate essentially shifts away from what really matters— namely, how we tackle inequality. Indeed, Baroness Lister of Burtersett made the very important point that we need to be careful with the language that we use. As sociologists we know very well that language results in discourses that produce and reproduce power relationships. The welfare debate is one such discourse that traps us into talking about measuring contribution, which in turn leads to privileging certain groups of society and stigmatising others. Baroness Lister instead suggested to talk about ‘social security’— a term that not only re-focuses the debate but a term that also suggests that the protection and the integrity of individuals and social groups come first. Indeed, I may not be sure how we measure contribution and I am not convinced we should solely focus on it, but I am certain that by talking about social security we have a better chance at assessing the causes of inequality and directly tackling the problem— a problem whose consequences go well beyond the 100 days of any Government.


Image courtesy of  Simon Cunningham

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Posted in GeneralWelfare policy