Social problems

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

June 30, 2021 15:00
June 30, 2021 16:30

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)


Jensen Jacob Didia// Aalborg University, Denmark

Guatieri Quentin // University of Montréal & Paris 8

Østerby-Jørgensen Andreas Michael // Aalborg University, Denmark and University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, China

Posselt Lukas, Universität Luzern&EHESS Paris

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)

The meaning of culture in questions of welfare deservingness – the case of the US

Jensen Jacob Didia// Aalborg University, Denmark

In a European context, the prominence of deservingness theory is on the rise. A key presumption of the theory is that because resources are limited, citizens of a welfare state must decide who deserves what share of welfare support. However, qualitative studies indicate that culturally defined conceptions of social justice influence the use of deservingness criteria. In this paper, I use French pragmatic sociology to study how different cultural conceptions of social justice influence the use of deservingness criteria in an American context. The study is designed as a comparative case study comparing the relationship between cultural conceptions of social justice and deservingness criteria among the white middle class of the northeastern city of Boston, MA, and the southern city of Knoxville, TN. Findings indicate that a concern for socio-economic segregation influences the use of deservingness criteria in Boston, MA, while a concern for the preservation of the family as institution influences the use of deservingness criteria in Knoxville, TN. The importance of culture in the use of deservingness criteria leads to a discussion of whether deservingness theory must incorporate a stronger sensibility towards culturally defined conceptions of social justice.

 Keywords: Social justice, culture, deservingness, French pragmatic sociology, welfare, USA 

The undeserving NEETs: From construction to representations of a "social problem"

Guatieri Quentin // University of Montréal & Paris 8

The question of the NEETs, which designate young people who are neither in education, employment or training, as topic of research and political agenda’s priority has been particularly significant over the last ten years (Cuzzocrea, 2014). The redefinition of standards for entry into adulthood have gradually led public authorities to consider the employment-unemployment dichotomy as incomplete in order to account for the grey areas between the two situations (Eurofound, 2016). The NEET category emerged more particularly in a context of governments concerns about the "invisibility" of a growing proportion of youth within traditionally defined social occupation (Van de Velde, 2016).

The objective of this paper is to present the results of our doctoral thesis on the life courses and aspirations of youth categorized as NEET in Quebec, Canada. 40 semi-structured interviews were conducted with NEET youth from different parts of Quebec. We thus propose a communication based on two axes.

First, we will focus on the construction and the use of the NEET category: Which "NEET problem" are we talking about? What criteria are mobilized to define the young "deserving" and the "undeserving" NEET? What does this category tell us about the injunctions formulated towards these young people qualified above all by their failings? After having synthesized its ambivalences, even its "inconsistencies" (Furlong, 2007), we will show how the NEET category informs more about institutional concerns than about the experiences of these young people. Social policies aimed at the young people, although essential to compensate for social and economic inequalities and to fight against various forms of vulnerability, can in fact potentially carry symbolic violence. The representation of the "(un)deserving poor" implied by integrates several dimensions, both symbolic (in terms of representations) and effective (with a list of criteria for allocation to social assistance). Thus, three injunctions seem to weigh on the NEETs: individual responsibility, autonomy and socially useful occupation.

Second, we will look at how welfare recipients’ NEETs react to social representations made to them. 25 of the youth interviewed were in receipt of income assistance at the time of the study. Described as "idle" and "disengaged" youth who need to be "reactivated" and "re-socialized", with a lack of skills, "profiteers", young NEETs on welfare are the object of a multitude of stigmatizing representations. The objective is thus to reverse the perspective and understand how these young people internalize, negotiate or reject these social representations.

Keywords: NEET, Youth, Merit, Social injunctions, Welfare state  

Deserving Hukou: How Chinese reason about migrants’ deservingness

Østerby-Jørgensen Andreas Michael // Aalborg University, Denmark and University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, China

The research on welfare deservingness has primarily investigated deservingness attitudes in Western countries, where notions of nationally inclusive citizenship with equality among citizens are strong. In a Western context, the identity deservingness criterion is therefore often evaluated on the basis of membership of the national community, and the reciprocity criterion is evaluated on the basis of contributions to the national community, where different types of contributions are perceived as equal in worth. However, Fei Xiaotong (1992) argues that ideas about citizenship and equality are not important in traditional Chinese society. So, how would the absence of these notions influence the way that people’s deservingness is evaluated on the basis of identity and reciprocity? This article explores how Chinese describe the deservingness of a group who are Chinese citizens, but who are excluded from welfare: Chinese internal migrants. The case is interesting, because the Chinese household registration (hukou) system means that they despite of their Chinese citizenship and despite of their contributions to their place of destination might still not be entitled to welfare there. In a qualitative analysis of interviews with Chinese working in Beijing, I investigate how the logic of the identity and the reciprocity deservingness criteria is different when it comes to the deservingness of Chinese internal migrants in Beijing. The weaker notions of citizenship and equality in China entail that the identity criterion becomes a more elastic dimension of deservingness, where subnational identities mean that migrants are not deserving of welfare in their place of destination. And even though contributing to a subnational community can make you deserving of welfare from that community, the spatial hierarchy in China means that the reciprocity criterion might be conditioned on whether you are able to make contributions that match the hierarchical position of a place like Beijing, which is in the top of the spatial hierarchy. This study therefore indicates that the deservingness criteria might have to be reconceptualized in non-Western contexts, where notions of citizenship and equality are weaker than in Western societies.

Keywords: Deservingness, Citizenship, China, Migrants, Hukou  

Conceptualizations of Causality and the Underserving Poor: The Case of Swiss Poor Relief in the Early Twentieth Century

Posselt Lukas, Universität Luzern&EHESS Paris

This paper studies experts’ conceptualizations of what it is to cause poverty. Building on existing research on how actors explain events and their implicit assumptions, I shift the perspective to situations where epistemological premises become explicit, and actors actively conceptualize causation. I argue that such conceptualizations represent a third dimension, in addition to causal explanations and implicit assumptions, that a sociology of causation should empirically investigate. 

Based on a case study of Swiss poor relief experts around 1900, I show that this professional group explained the causes of poverty but also reflected on what causality is. This conceptualization included what properties different causes share and how they should be identified and grouped. Using a qualitative content analysis of manuals, transcripts of presentations, and training courses, I examine their conceptualization of causality along four dimensions: (1) scope and character of the explanandum, (2) repertoire and ontology of causes, (3) metaphysical assumptions, and (4) instrument and methods. 

My historical case study suggests that this poor relief experts’ conceptualization was part of their “boundary work” to demarcate their profession from established disciplines and common beliefs on poverty causes. 

Moreover, my analysis suggests that the expert’s conceptualization changed the underlying framework of how deserving and undeserving poor were distinguished. At the end of the 19th-century, experts in the field started to criticize the then-dominant categorization of “self-inflicted” and “innocent” poverty. The experts’ new repertoire of poverty causes distinguished “social” and “individual” causes of poverty. The decisive criteria that distinguished the main categories of causes was explicitly not moral responsibility, but the possibility to counteract poverty causes. In the analyzed writings, they largely defended that poor relief workers could act on individual causes, but broader social policy interventions were necessary to address social causes of poverty, such as “unemployment.” Individual causes of poverty were viewed as personal deficiencies. Mental illnesses, “work shyness” [Arbeitsscheue], or “immorality” [Unsittlichkeit] were listed as such causes. The new repertoire of poverty causes incorporated social explanations of poverty but translated the old distinction of deserving and undeserving poor into a casuistic of human kinds. The traditional question of who should take the moral guilt for causing impoverishment did not disappear but became a difference in human nature. 

Beyond this particular case, my analysis may show the importance of epistemic conceptualizations to understand what makes the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor at a given moment possible. That is why I argue that the proposed shift from the study of epistemological machinery in use to studying their blueprints is useful beyond the study of social welfare. In a broader sense, my paper thus aims to contribute to recent research in the sociology of morality that focuses on moral background elements that enable moral judgments (cf. Abend 2014). 

Keywords: causality; causal explanation; causes of poverty; welfare; undeservingness