Hybrid Entitlement: How Welfare Recipients Perceive Their Rights in a Neoliberal Era

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Einat Lavee. Click here to access the article.

Today, when many Western countries have adopted welfare programmes based on a neoliberal ideology that reduces state responsibility for citizens’ well-being, how are low-income people’s perceptions of entitlement affected? Interviews with 76 welfare recipients in Israel revealed that their perceptions of entitlement to public support are influenced by both the “new” welfare regime of market citizenship, as well as “old” perceptions of universal citizenship rights. The result is a sense of ‘hybrid entitlement.’

A basic principle of neoliberalism is that citizenship is achieved through participating in paid labour. Welfare has been restructured to promote personal responsibility. Programmes are designed to provide the poor with an experience of the market and to teach worker self-discipline.  Individuals are given only limited support dependent on their work commitment and their show of appropriate morality by willingness to participate in the labour market.

This study explored how those on the bottom of the social ladder experience and respond to changing policies. What are their perceptions of citizenship inclusion and their ability to resist exclusion and struggle to escape poverty? 

Israeli society lends itself to studying changing perceptions of entitlement under welfare restructure. Originally, Israel was established as a social democratic welfare state. However, like other Western countries, it has gradually adopted a neoliberal welfare ideology.  A major goal of this reform is to push welfare recipients into the workforce.

Israel’s welfare policy had been to support women in their dual roles as caregivers and breadwinners, but a 2003 reform drastically decreased allocations and other social services for single mothers. The Israeli welfare regime, however, combines a neoliberal ethos with policy institutions traditionally built on a social democratic ideology. For example, single mothers who receive income support must report regularly to the local employment service and accept any job offered to them. Nevertheless, there are no specific working-hour requirements and sanctions are imposed only on those refusing to work at all. Because there is no time limit on receiving benefits, often single mothers combine work and welfare for long periods.

Israeli society has a collectivist character, with a public that favours an inclusive welfare state and generous social policy. The combination of ‘old’ and ‘new’ welfare in Israel makes it an ideal case to study the factors that shape individuals’ sense of entitlement to state support.

The majority of interviewees were women and mothers who lived in poverty and received various kinds of welfare support. They adjusted their entitlement perceptions to the neoliberal disciplining regime. They put a high value on labour market participation and independent breadwinning. However, they also believed that the state should be responsible for the welfare of its citizens.  This created a perception of hybrid entitlement of which there were three variations.

The first was economic. They agreed that they should support their families through their wages. However, they held the state responsible for providing the appropriate conditions for them to earn a decent livelihood. 

Raise the minimum wage (interview 26)

Higher salary. Minimum wage … should be at least commensurate with a person’s expenses. It’s inconceivable that life is so expensive, and salaries are all gone with nothing left until the next paycheck (interview 22).

The second was resistance to commoditization. They held the state responsible for providing them with self-fulfilment and job satisfaction. Their work should make them feel respected and included members of society.

People should be offered options for training, schooling, something that will really build them, that will give them usable tools … to enter in a respectable manner into the labor market (interview 28).

The state can hire people to do what they love and pay them a stipend. To gain experience. Find creative solutions. Not only centers of employment placement, but centers of personalization, which will determine what kind of work is suitable for each person. Adjust the work to the people (interview 5).

The third was support for single mothers to allow them to be successful workers: 

The state could …take care of the economic situation of single mothers… The goal is to encourage working… The state should be responsible for a recovery plan for divorced women, so they can earn even more than other people…; even though I work myself to death, my kids are still in poverty… There should be help finding additional sources of employment to make sure that single mothers who work full-time like me can live in dignity (interview15).

What emerged was a process in which perceptions of entitlement to social rights were disciplined by the ‘new’ welfare regime of market citizenship, but simultaneously influenced by ‘old’ perceptions of universal citizenship rights. Interviewees believed that the state was obliged to provide them with the appropriate conditions for achieving the goal of personal responsibility through work.

Today, advocates of social entitlements are shifting the emphasis on policy reforms from responsibility to work to the social rights of low-income workers to earn a living wage. After all, the right to a living wage arouses less resistance than cash assistance for the unemployed. It is easier to mobilize public support for a policy that helps those who work hard to provide for their families, than for programmes that pay poor people to stay at home and care for their children.

The concept of hybrid citizenship points to a variation in individuals’ sense of entitlement divergent from the original purpose of the neoliberal disciplinary regime. Hybrid perceptions of entitlement represent active negotiations by those receiving collective support. These individuals take advantage of ideological values to justify themselves as moral citizens.

My study points to the urgency of focusing attention on the perspective of poor women and the centrality of social policy in providing the appropriate conditions for them to fulfil their dual roles as caregivers and independent breadwinners. 

About the author

Einat Lavee is Senior Lecturer at the University of Haifa.


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