Belong To What? Contribute What? Respondents’ Differing Conceptions Of How To Become Deserving Of Welfare

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Andreas Michael Østerby-Jørgensen. Click here to access the article.

People tend to think that some are more deserving of welfare than others. They would, for instance, think that people who belong to the same community as themselves would be more deserving of welfare (‘identity‘). And that people who have contributed to and done something for the community would be more deserving (‘reciprocity‘). But what community do they mean? And what kind of contribution is needed? Respondents have different conceptions of belonging and reciprocity, and depending on which conceptions they emphasize, they can have quite different evaluations of potential welfare recipients’ deservingness.

In this article, I explored how differing conceptions of identity and reciprocity affect potential recipients’ welfare deservingness. My exploration had its empirical point of departure in the case of Chinese intranational migrants’ deservingness. Because of China’s Household Registration System (hukou), intranational migrants in China are not entitled to the same welfare benefits as local residents, and it is also very difficult for migrants to obtain the status of a local resident and hence be entitled to local welfare. They are thus excluded from welfare at their destination, even though it can be argued that intranational migrants are part of the same Chinese national community as the local residents (identity), and that migrants contribute labour to the local economy (reciprocity). This makes migrants’ deservingness an interesting case that can illuminate how differing conceptions of identity and reciprocity can result in quite different evaluations of deservingness. 

Based on 66 interviews with Chinese people working in Beijing, I explore how they evaluate intranational migrants’ deservingness. I find that there are both positive and negative evaluations of migrants’ deservingness among the interviewees. These different evaluations reflect different conceptions of identity and reciprocity emphasized by the interviewees. Migrants’ deservingness therefore depends on the conceptions of identity and reciprocity that the interviewees used.

First, the interviewees emphasized different conceptions of identity. Some interviewees would emphasize that migrants belong to the same national community as local residents do, and that they therefore should be deserving of welfare at their destination. However, other interviewees emphasized more local conceptions of belonging and identity. In Chinese traditional thought, people are seen as tied to specific personal relationships like family and home. Belongingness can therefore be conceived of in terms of more local communities, and some interviewees indeed emphasized such a conception of identity. They would emphasize that migrants have their families and homes elsewhere and thus belong there, while Beijing people have their families and homes in Beijing and therefore belong in Beijing. This meant that these interviewees evaluated migrants as undeserving of welfare. The deservingness of the same group of potential welfare recipients was thus evaluated very differently by the interviewees.

Second, many interviewees also introduced different conceptions of reciprocity into their evaluations of migrants’ deservingness. Conceptions of reciprocity can vary in the conditionality that is attached to the granting of welfare. That is, some respondents have more specific conditions for the reciprocation required to become deserving, while others just expect some kind of reciprocation. Some interviewees emphasized a less conditional notion of reciprocity, where they pointed out that migrants contribute labour to the local economy and are therefore deserving of welfare in Beijing. But other interviewees emphasized a more conditional notion of reciprocity. They would highlight reciprocation in terms of monetary contributions, like tax payments. A few interviewees described how in order to become deserving of welfare in Beijing, migrants need to have certain abilities, so that they can perform certain functions that can contribute to Beijing’s development. Beijing’s status as a political and economic centre means that these interviewees attach this strong functional conditionality to migrants’ deservingness. With these more conditional notions of reciprocity, interviewees tended to evaluate migrants as less deserving of welfare, because many migrants would not be able to contribute in these more specific ways.

The case of Chinese intranational migrants’ deservingness shows that respondents’ conceptions of identity and reciprocity matter when we are trying to understand welfare deservingness. The interviewees in my study evaluated the deservingness of the same group of potential welfare recipients very differently, because they had multiple conceptions of identity and reciprocity which they could highlight in their evaluations. The differences between positive evaluations and negative evaluations were therefore not caused by differences in recipients’ characteristics, but by differences in the conceptions of identity and reciprocity that interviewees highlighted. 

My findings indicate that welfare deservingness research has to pay attention to which conceptions of identity and reciprocity respondents use when they evaluate potential welfare recipients’ deservingness. Respondents have multiple conceptions which they can emphasize in their evaluations, and recipients’ deservingness will depend on which conception they emphasize. Deservingness research should thus be careful with assuming how respondents conceive of identity and reciprocity, for instance assuming that respondents think that the national community is the most important identity indicator, or that contributing labour is a sufficient form of reciprocation. Rather, in order to understand how respondents evaluate recipients’ deservingness, it is necessary first to understand how respondents conceive of identity and reciprocity.

About the author

Andreas Michael Østerby-Jørgensen is a PhD Candidate at Aalborg University.


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