Australian Welfare Reform: From Citizenship to Supervision, by Sheila Shaver

Social Policy and Administration, vol.36, no.4, August 2002, pp.331-345.

Shaver’s paper examines the implications of welfare reform for the meaning of social citizenship in Australia. She concludes that deepening emphases on the market, the family, and individuals’ moral obligation to sustain themselves are moving welfare provision from being a limited social right to being conditional support, and are moving Australia’s understanding of the human person from that of a sovereign individual to that of a subject of paternalistic supervision. “Hidden in the shift from rights to conditional support, and from sovereignty to supervision, is a denial of the equality of selfhood as the price of welfare assistance” (p.342).

To generalise a point which Shaver makes, following Offe’s suggestion that there has been “a loss of political support for class-based collective strategies of equality and redistribution,” (p.342): individuals throughout the Western world now see themselves as over against the welfare state, evaluating it against other possibilities, rather than as members of it. In this context, as Shaver recognises, welfare states (and political parties of the left) are adapting themselves to this new situation. One consequence of this adaptation is that the fostering of equality is no longer an aim (either explicit or implicit) of social policy.

This paper is about Australia, but there are significant parallels with the ways in which welfare provision is changing in the UK and the USA. In all three, obligations balance, and sometimes outweigh, the individual’s rights. Whilst these concepts cohere with the notion of liberal social citizenship, policy changes are beginning to damage the foundations of such a liberal society. “The shift from support available as of right to assistance provided on condition violates the presumption that all citizens are equal in status, dignity and worth that is necessary for full participation in democratic society. The shift from the presumption of individual sovereignty to welfare supervision entails levels of intrusion into spheres of privacy and individual volition that have been highly protected in liberal society. Much of the development of twentieth-century welfare has been concerned with the assertion of equality in precisely these respects. It is this development of equal social citizenship that contemporary liberal welfare reform is now putting in question” (p.343).

Shaver sees Tony Atkinson’s concept of a ‘participation income’ (quoted from our Bulletin no.16) as part of the same process, away from a citizenship of belonging and towards a citizenship of active participation – with the corollary that anyone not participating is no longer regarded as a citizen.

But maybe the difference is one of degree rather than of kind. If the criteria for ‘participation’ were to be drawn sufficiently broadly then there would be few members of the population not receiving the participation income, especially if it were to be paid to those adults deemed unable to participate actively in society by virtue of illness or disability. Atkinson’s own criteria are very broad, and the Citizen’s Income Trust’s research when he first made the proposal ten years ago suggested that only about 1% of the population would not be receiving the participation income – meaning that it would be cheaper to pay a Citizen’s Income than to continue to administer a participation income which would require the policing of participation criteria.

Yes, there is a shift going on in our understanding of citizenship, and changes in welfare provision both respond to and help to drive that change. Child Benefit, by ameliorating the poverty and unemployment traps, represents a citizenship both of belonging and of participation. A Citizen’s Income would do the same.