The last Deliverable of the ETHOS research strand on justice as lived experience (work package 5) explores the relation between justice and social assistance, a means-tested state benefit that is in principle non-contributory. The context of the views and experiences described is the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the subsequent policy shift toward austerity that took place in all ETHOS partner countries except Turkey.

The contested nature of social policy making during austerity revealed public perceptions regarding the treatment of different social categories, which can be inferred from legal changes but also captured in the discourses of the media and political parties. Comparing such perceptions with the accounts of individual claimants can reveal important gaps in hegemonic understandings of the welfare state and its impact on structural inequalities. Our analysis is based on semi-structured interviews and secondary data on the social position of disabled persons, foreign nationals, young persons and women (and the interaction between these characteristics).

We find that in the context of social assistance, ideas of justice are mobilised not to support claimants, but to support the ‘taxpayer’ and the citizen working poor who are represented as the losers if the welfare state is too generous. Respondents’ ideas about social assistance call on ideas of appropriateness or fittingness of treatment and might be seen to draw on Aristotelian ideas of moral character or virtue as a desert basis for economic distribution. This is particularly evident when considering the pattern of distribution.

Using Van Oorschot’s (2000) ‘CARIN’ criteria: Control, Attitude, Reciprocity, Identity and Neediness we explore how reciprocity trumps deservingness and the implications of this for recognition. While the welfare state is often represented, in both political theory and practice, as one of the pinnacles of achievement of European citizenship, to be in receipt of social assistance is neither experienced nor viewed as the imprimatur of citizenship, but rather it raises serious questions of misrecognition.

The emphasis on need means that those in receipt of benefits often feel the weight of social judgement on their personal behaviour, choices and values, or that they are the object of pity; the imposition of symbolic reciprocity, which may also be represented as enhancing capabilities, is undermined by the failure to recognise activities as work, and, in some cases, by imposing activities that are considered socially demeaning. Furthermore, we argue that attention to outcomes is not sufficient for justice concerns, and that in many cases the procedures for claiming were themselves experienced as an injustice even if the outcome was not.

What could a more just welfare state look like? We propose, first, that means testing could be replaced with status testing, whereby anyone who is unemployed would be eligible for social assistance. This could be a first step toward basic income, which should complement rather than replace existing public services. Exploitative work-related conditionality could be progressively eliminated, not the least by removing the threat of benefit sanctions. To prevent the exclusion of mobile people from social assistance, anyone who is legally resident should be able to receive it. To counter gendered and aged power imbalances within families, social assistance could be paid to individual recipients instead of targeting families and households.

Many improvements could be achieved through procedural steps, such as encouraging the formation and diffusion of claimants’ unions; promoting conversations with the unions that represent the workers administering benefits; providing adequate training to officials administering the benefits; and facilitating complaints procedures. In the longer term, citizens should be educated about the benefits the welfare state confers to the middle classes as well as the poor, and about the connections between austerity, tax havens and tax avoidance. The current allocation of social assistance responsibilities to states rather than international organisations, which may be better positioned to address the challenges of a globalised economic order, should also be problematised.


by Bridget Anderson and Pier-Luc Dupont
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D5.5
Find the full publication on the ETHOS website