Deserving of Social Support? Street-Level Bureaucrats’ Decisions on EU Migrants’ Benefit Claims in Germany

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Nora Ratzmann. Click here to access the article.

We asked for workers. We got people instead. (Max Frisch)

After the launch of the guest-worker programme in the 1960s, Germany quickly became one of the most ethnically diverse European countries. However, many German politicians refused to accept the country’s position as a de facto country of immigration until the early 2000s. Overall, German integration policies remain restrictive until today. Historic ideas of German nationhood as a homogeneous ethno-cultural and linguistic entity continue to shape politics and law on migrant integration to date, in the form of demands to culturally assimilate into the host society. Such ideas about belonging mirror what Anderson captured by the term ‘imagined community’, which he conceptualised as a symbolic political community based on shared values, and a common language and descent. 

However, the German case is not unique. It is emblematic for the ‘nationalist turn’ which immigrant integration programmes have taken in Europe more widely. As Farris argued, integration increasingly has become equated with cultural assimilation, whereby inclusionary policies are only accessible for those who perform cultural similarities. How such assumptions about cultural assimilation play out in day-to-day policy implementation, shaping the lived experiences of its recipients, has been less explored. Access to poverty-relieving social provision provides us with an illustrative case, as it impacts on opportunities to meaningfully participate in society. 

While the focus of research often remained on policy-makers, who determine the general rules governing access, it is the informal side of implementation that matters for de facto access to legal social entitlements – how rules are interpreted by caseworkers who determine who can access to social services in practice. Hence my interest in those working at the frontline of social services, commonly referred to as ‘street-level workers’ in the literature.

To contribute to this discussion, the articles focusses on the case of accessing essential social benefits, namely social assistance (also called Unemployment Benefit II) in Germany. I approached the above questions through the lens of deservingness, a concept, which, in essence, captures what groups are considered worthy of attention, investment and care. Who should we support in a given society? Should foreigners, as people from outside, be included? And if so, how and when? Or differently put, I intended to interrogate frontline workers’ ideas of how limited welfare resources should be distributed fairly within a given community of solidarity.  

The research centred on mobile intra-EU migrants who constitute one of the largest immigrant groups to Germany, whose experience of settling in Germany has remained understudied. The findings from 55 qualitative interviews with job centre representatives show how politics of exclusion are justified by nationalistic and ethnic criteria of membership. Insofar as EU migrants are considered outsiders to the imagined welfare community of their host country, they are seen as less deserving than German-born claimants. The analysis also revealed how street-level bureaucrats filter EU citizens’ claims at local level in practice. Mobile EU citizens can earn their legitimacy to access benefit receipt through sustained participation in the host society, demonstrating knowledge of the German language and societal norms so as to appear ‘German’. The findings of this article spotlight dynamics of cultural stratification based on claimants’ ability to converse in German and their tacit cultural knowledge, producing differentiated chances to meaningfully participate in their chosen host country between ‘cultural insiders versus outsiders’. 

As such, this research illustrates how ideas about progressive assimilation do not only shape immigration integration policy, such as the 2005 Immigration Act, but equally transcend into adjacent policy fields which shape day-to-day experiences of inclusion into or exclusion from the host society. In the context studied, linguistic and cultural knowledge become tools for regulating de facto benefit receipt, excluding some immigrant applicants who are legally entitled to state social support but cannot substantiate their claim in practice. The idea here is that “rights have to be earned”. Street-level workers play the role of gate-keepers, as they do not homogenously apply rules and regulations but enact differentiated practices of access. Considering that it is national welfare systems, and their localised implementation of service provision, which continue to shape EU citizens’ social rights in a member state other than their own, one may question whether any form of transnational social citizenship is realistically possible in the long run or whether it remains a romantic ideal to aspire to.

About the author

Nora Ratzmann is an Associate at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics.


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