Social problems

Who deserves what? Social policy and deservingness in times of crisis (session 1 of 2)

June 30, 2021 10:45
June 30, 2021 12:15

Bochsler Yann, University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW); Hümbelin Oliver, Haute école spécialisée bernoise(BFH); Eva Nada, HES-SO, Haute école de travail social de Genève (HEST-GE); Emilie Rosenstein, Université de Genève; Peter Streckeisen, Zürcher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften (ZHAW)


Hilmar Till // Bremen University

Manstetten Ruth // Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen

Linden Philipp & Reibling Nadine // University of Siegen

Dif-Pradalier Maël & Richard Nina // HES-SO, HETS-Fribourg

Social policies reflect our societies’ commitment towards social justice. The history of welfare states underlines how this commitment is closely related to moments of crisis. On the one hand, crises can result in budget cuts, reducing welfare spending or making the access to social benefits more selective. On the other hand, crises can exacerbate aspirations and claims for social justice, solidarity and act as a catalyst of social progress. Moments of crisis are thus a key opportunity to question social policies and their normative content as they shed light on the age-old issue: who deserves what? The management of the COVID-19 crisis in Switzerland illustrates this clearly. Within a few weeks, billions of francs were deployed to support small business owners, while temporary layoff benefits covered more than a third of the Swiss workforce in April 2020. However, at the same time, we discovered thousands of vulnerable people, queuing for hours to receive food charity because they had no access to social benefits. These examples reveal the importance of deservingness criteria in achieving - or not - political consensus on the measures to be taken to face the crisis. Furthermore, the outcome of this normative debate affects certain target groups very differently, depending on their citizen status or their access to the labor market. The question of eligibility also involves issues regarding individual responsibility and productive work. The current crisis challenges more broadly the role of social policies to perform and maintain social cohesion and to decide whom, as a society, we choose to help, and why? The research network Social Problems invites contributions that explore these logics of deservingness in different social policies and discuss their influence on how social problems are framed, in times of crisis and beyond. Deservingness may be analyzed at four levels: 1. Definition of social policies: How the criteria of deservingness are framed? Who are the actors determining the definition of problems? How the definition of the problem contributes to the framing of social policy and its beneficiaries? 2. Implementation at front-line level: Social policies are implemented by institutions, charities and social workers at the front-line level. Through this process, official discourses and deservingness criteria are reinterpreted. What is the impact of the crisis at the front-line level? To what extent does it change the delivery of social benefits and services? 3. Perception among welfare recipients: Social policies have very tangible consequences on individuals targeted by a given policy. How do recipients interpret and re-appropriate the policies? To what extent their moral economy, i.e. what they find (un)fair, is affected by the current crisis? 4. Perception among the general population: Public opinion about social policy and welfare recipients is of paramount importance. Does the crisis affect the prevailing representations and criteria of deservingness?

Keywords:  Deservingness, Social policy, Social justice, Social problems, Individual responsibility, Crisis (Covid-19)

From moral economy to a political semiotics of economic suffering: Examples from Covoid-19 Germany and the US

Hilmar Till // Bremen University

Both as a health catastrophe and an unparalleled economic shock, the Covid-19 crisis has upended societies around the world. By the end of 2020, more than two million people had died from complications associated with the virus, and many more are suffering from its physical, psychic, and economic consequences. In light of these catastrophic developments, an older sociological question has gained renewed urgency: How do people apprehend largescale societal crises? More specifically, what frames, narratives, and cultural scripts do they have available to make sense of the rupturing shifts that unfold around them? In my contribution, I argue that drawing on theories of the moral economy can help us understand how welfare identities are (re)-constituted and formed in the process of the Covid-19 crisis. Classic moral economy scholarship (E.P. Thompson, James Scott) sheds light on how culture matters in the way social groups apprehend and react to economic shocks.  In the first part of my paper, I revisit and amend these insights with contemporary conceptual approaches to how social groups represent and perform economic victimhood and suffering vis-à-vis the state and the public (drawing, specifically, on Robin Wagner-Pacifici’s and Isaac Reed’s theories of political semiosis). In the second part, I derive a focused empirical question from these considerations: How do particular groups in society construe themselves as legitimate receivers of the emergency financial relief measures offered by governments since March 2020? Using corpus linguistic methods, I analyze Twitter and newspaper data from 2020. I study the claims that certain actors (such as small business owners) base their receipt (or lack thereof) of financial support on. I select actors on the basis of their successful claims of being entitled to receive funds and their deservingness of state aid more generally – in other words, I regard them as identities (in transition) that are constituted by the relation to the welfare state (John Mohr). I discuss examples from Germany and the US to explore this argument comparatively.

Keywords: moral economy, culture and inequality, recognition, welfare eligibility, computational social science

Contested Categories? Criticism “from below” on the understandings of deservingness in Germany in times of crisis 

Manstetten Ruth // Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen

In the last decades, discourses around unemployment in Germany were often characterized by the notion that unemployment is a self-inflicted social situation or even the accusation that it is an intended "lazy" lifestyle at the expense of others. Deservingness of social benefits was tied to notions of achievement, moral integrity and national belonging. Thus, causes of unemployment were mainly individualized, culturized or racialized, excluding specific groups from social welfare based on their behavior, nationality or citizenship status. 

Since the Coronavirus hit Germany at the beginning of 2020, the discourse about unemployment has changed profoundly: The structural reasons for new waves of unemployment seemed undeniable. People who lost their jobs were now seen as victims of the pandemic in need of government support. By distributing “Coronahilfen” to different status groups, the government established new categories of deserving and undeserving recipients of social benefits that evoked ongoing debates about deservingness, needs and fairness. 

The paper analyzes the emergence of new and the reinforcement of old moral categories brought into play during the crisis from different perspectives. In a first step, it explores answers to the question “who deserves what” given in the German public discourse, as presented in widespread newspaper articles since March 2020. Based on a sociology of knowledge approach to discourse, the analysis shows how new moral lines of deservingness are now drawn between the old unemployed (who allegedly deserve less) and the new unemployed (who deserve more). At the same time, the paper argues that changes in the classification of deservingness nevertheless continue to be based on understandings of belonging, achievement and class, leading, for instance, to vocal criticism when the welfare state “forgets” highly educated and rather prestigious groups like artists and to a widespread silence when marginalized groups are “forgotten” by the state. 

In a second step, the paper explores how the different groups who are targets of ongoing normative debates perceive and understand deservingness . It analyzes how people who are classified as (un)deserving (re)interpret current public debates and classification practices of the welfare state. The paper presents empirical results from three focus group discussions: One with “old” recipients of social benefits (long term Hartz IV recipients), one with “new” recipients of social benefits (like artists) and one with people excluded from social welfare due to their citizenship status. The results show how public understandings of deservingness are adopted, challenged and contested “from below”. 

Keywords:  categories, contestated, “from below”, deservingness, Germany 

Unemployed + Ill = More deserving? A Longitudinal Survey Experiment on How the Medicalisation of Unemployment Affects Public Opinion

Linden Philipp & Reibling Nadine // University of Siegen 

The literature on the social legitimacy of welfare benefits has shown that ill persons are perceived more deserving than unemployed individuals. However, existing studies examine ill and unemployed persons as distinct groups, while unemployment and illness are in fact strongly related. Since policymakers across Europe have been increasingly concerned with discouraging a medicalization of unemployment and activating ill unemployed persons, it is crucial to understand welfare attitudes towards this group. We argue that how an illness affects attitudes towards unemployment depends upon the specific dimension examined, i.e. benefits, conditions, and sanctions.

We report results from a factorial survey fielded with a quota-based, representative sample of German-speaking adults (N=2,621). Within the cross-sectional analysis in 2019, we show that respondents do not allocate higher benefits to individuals whose unemployment is related to a medical or psychological condition, but they sanction this group significantly less in the case of non-compliance with regulations. Nevertheless, respondents strongly support tying benefit receipt to compulsory medical or psychological interventions for this group. These findings suggest that the public generally agrees with applying active labor market policies also to ill unemployed persons. While they are more lenient towards this group, they agree with additional conditions targeted at overcoming ill health.

Furthermore, we assume that the drastic changes caused by the Corona pandemic are equivalent to a "health shock" that is likely to have an impact on both, the perception of deservingness and social control. We therefore fielded our survey experiment in a recontact sample (N=1,843) within a second wave during the end of 2020 and extended the factorial survey to include membership in a COVID-19 risk group as a rationale for unemployment. The findings of the longitudinal analysis will be used to contrast the results before and during Corona.

Keywords: Medicalization, Social legitimacy, Unemployment, Illness, Vignette  

Supporting young people towards socio-professional integration in times of crisis. Some first results from an evaluation of a pilot programme launched in three Swiss regions 

Dif-Pradalier Maël & Richard Nina // HES-SO, HETS-Fribourg

In this proposal, we would like to present the first results of an on-going evaluation of a national pilot programme aiming at supporting young people between 15 and 28 years old with no completed vocational training to find an apprenticeship in order to increase their chances of professional integration. Based on a first experience launched n Fribourg in 2013 (and still on-going), the programme was extended to three regions of Switzerland (Valais, Arc Jurassien and Ticino) in 2019 and the pilot phase will last until December 2023. The aim of our evaluation is to assess the objectives of the programme to reach its target audience and its capacity to allow it to enter the labour market. In particular, the evaluation provides for interim and final recommendations to be formulated. Its purpose is to analyse and report on the point of view of young people involved in the programme as a legitimate source to be taken into account in the design of the problem and the intervention framework. According to the official documentation of the programme provider, access to it requires the following cumulative – and selective – conditions: “not having completed recognized training, not participating in any other programme, having a residence permit allowing training in Switzerland, having the necessary motivation to complete vocational training, presenting cognitive skills, language skills and status of health to carry out vocational training”. In this contribution, we will present our initial conclusions following the first year of the evaluation process. More specifically, we will focus on both the expected and observed counterparties from young people to benefit from the programme and the strategies used by them to comply with its expectations, the ways in which support is deployed (and conditioned) by professionals in each of the contexts specific to three regions investigated as well as the ways in which beneficiaries are defined (i.e. how deservingness is framed) and who are the actors who determine and influence the criteria for access and continuation in the programme. Finally, we will analyse how the current context of pandemic and socio-health crisis has (eventually) changed the profiles of participants, the ways in which support is deployed as well as the arrangements and possibilities for access to vocational training and to the labour market. Indeed, as a consequence of the ongoing crisis, a sharp decrease in the signing of apprenticeship contracts is expected in Switzerland over the next years. From a methodological point of view, our proposal is based on document analysis (legal frameworks, contracts, etc.), data from an online questionnaire addressed to both participants and companies in order to determine their respective profile and in-depth interviews with front-line social workers and management of local service providers, but also with representatives of training companies and young recipients, both with whom shorter follow-up interviews are planned on an annual basis until 2023. 17 interviews with all actors involved have been conducted so far and others are planned in the next weeks.

Keywords: professional integration; disadvantaged youth; school-to-work transition; active social policies; Swiss inter-regional comparisons.