Have Welfare-to-Work Reforms Promoted Citizen Responsibility?

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy.  You can access the article by clicking here.

Have welfare-to-work reforms succeeded in promoting citizen responsibility? Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016) provides an excellent opportunity to reconsider how we apply the concept of responsibility. The film portrays a UK welfare reality where the eponymous character is faced with a chillingly indifferent and stressful system. Blake feels treated as a mere social-security number, a scrounger and a beggar. The grinding down by an uncommunicative bureaucracy forces Blake to articulate his claim to respect on a pencil-written note to remind himself: “I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less.” But what specifically was wrong with the way he had been treated?

Blake’s complaint is not simply that he does not get the benefits to which he is entitled; rather, it is also that these benefits are being withheld in a way that fails to address him appropriately as a citizen. In one important sense, the welfare institution does not address Blake as a responsible citizen. What is needed is a fuller account of what this conception of citizen responsibility consists in. In particular, what does it require of welfare institutions?

Relinquishing responsibility?

With regards to the meaning of responsibility, there is a peculiar consensus in the welfare debate. Those who are critical of increased use of blunt activation tools and threats of sanctions accept the conception of citizen responsibility of those who advocate these practices. The strategy of critics of harsh welfare-to-work reforms has been to denounce responsibility-orientation as a vice rather than a virtue of welfare institutions.

For example, among social policy analysts, responsibility is commonly counted among the “neo-liberal values” and it has been claimed that certain harmful welfare regimes are “shaped by the very notion of responsibility.” Political philosophers are typically less keen to condemn responsibility as such but have nevertheless suggested that we should let the value of responsibility “find its way in the space left by the more aggressive assertion of other values.” However, if the invocation of responsibility is an invariant feature of political argument, then it is of primary importance to articulate a moral basis for this value. Rather than taking the currently dominant conception of responsibility for granted, we should ask: do these practices really promote citizen responsibility?

The project of reconsidering the meaning of responsibility requires greater efforts at bridge-building between moral philosophy and social policy analysts. In my article “Reclaiming Responsibility” in the Journal of Social Policy, I seek to develop a respect-based conception of responsibility and to explain what it requires of frontline interaction, policy instruments, and legislative discourse. By engaging closely with the empirical literature, the article develops a standard of responsibility that can be used to assess the fairness of current practices. My approach has been to explore how a classic paper on moral responsibility—“Freedom and Resentment” by the philosopher Peter F. Strawson—is still relevant for the evaluation of fair social policy. The conception of responsibility that is derived for welfare-to-work practices highlights participatory modes of address and puts less emphasis on punitive consequences than the responsibility conception that currently dominates political discourse in many countries. What would it mean for Blake to be addressed as responsible citizen, then?

Capabilities instead of blame

The respect-based conception of responsibility requires frontline interaction to connect with the claimant as someone having requisite moral insight but lacking opportunities. Respectful activation is geared towards enabling claimants to find meaningful employment in a mode that recognizes their potentials and aspirations. The so-called “capability approach” to activation is helpful here. On this model, frontline-interaction should aim to help claimants convert their resources into opportunities. This requires sensitivity to the special circumstances of the claimant and intelligent use of activation tools. That is a way of engaging with claimants on participatory terms; it sees claimants as wanting to contribute but requiring work-related capabilities.

This contrasts with the idea that enforcement can only be successful if social programmes foster a “sense of responsibility” by persuading people to “blame themselves” for deviation. As a policy for frontline interaction, this is apt to alienate claimants and prevent the creation of a shared space of reasons. Claimants are said to react with “anger, humiliation and depression” to messages from welfare-to-work contractors who emphasize that it is the claimant’s own mindset that is the problem. In cases where claimants believe that they have done what can reasonably be expected of them in terms of finding work, the strategy of making claimants blame themselves for their situation will understandably give rise to a feeling of being met with disrespect.

Turning “timeless value” into critical standard

Those who believe welfare institutions are faced with claimants who are either deserving or undeserving—“strivers” or “skivers”—will continue to speak of responsibility strictly in terms of consequences for choice. The most dangerous response to this talk is to relinquish responsibility and instead claim allegiance to other values, such as solidarity or respect. The only viable strategy for influencing the broader debate on the future of the welfare state is to challenge the dominant responsibility conception with a notion of responsibility infused with the values of solidarity and respect. The Third Way manifesto spoke of responsibility as a “timeless value”; it is time to turn that claim into a critical standard for assessing the regime that followed.

About the author

Andreas Eriksen is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oslo.


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