Marcello Natili, The Politics of Minimum Income

Marcello Natili, The Politics of Minimum Income: Explaining path departure and policy departure in the age of austerity, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, xix + 318 pp, hbk, 3-319-96210-8, £64.99

This book began life as a PhD thesis based on numerous interviews in Italy and Spain relating to the politics of Minimum Income Schemes: that is, benefits designed to prevent household incomes falling below specified levels. The UK equivalents would be Universal Credit and the legacy means-tested benefits: so something very different from Citizen’s Basic Income.

The period in view is the mid-1980s to 2015, during which Spain introduced regional Minimum Income Schemes across the whole country, whereas Italy has only experienced a few short-lived regional schemes, and now has a minimal national scheme, which Natili describes as ‘peculiar’ (p. 3). Natili sets himself two questions: Why did Spain and Italy introduce Minimum Income Schemes after not having had them? And why did Spain and Italy take such different policy journeys? In order to answer the questions, Natili studies two Spanish regions and two Italian regions, and traces the histories of their Minimum Income Schemes. In the process, he deepens our understanding of the politics of social assistance, and finds that traditional welfare theory struggles to explain the different paths taken in Spain and Italy: in the first case, introduction and gradual institutionalisation, and, in the second, introduction and policy reversals. In both countries the poverty problem looked much the same, both had similar benefits systems, both had similar rudimentary charitable provision for alleviating poverty, both had similar governance structures for benefits, and both had developed more flexible employment markets – so all of the factors that would normally be used by traditional welfare theories to predict policy directions look much the same, which meant that traditional theories could not explain the fact that in Spain regional Minimum Income Schemes were expanded, whereas in Italy they were closed down, in both cases by conservative governments.

Following the introductory chapter, chapter 2 surveys different benefits systems, finds existing theories unable to explain the different policy directions in Spain and Italy, and develops Natili’s own theoretical approach. In order to provide an explanation for Spain’s and Italy’s different policy directions, he develops an understanding of the situation as policy actors attempting to achieve ‘credit’ in what we might think of as an economy in which voters and interest groups exercise demand, and political parties supply what is required. Political parties attempt to achieve ‘credit’ from voters and interest groups, and the credit-claiming dynamics determine policy directions. Natili suggests that it is the difference in the dynamics that lead to different policy outcomes, so he studies the complex demand and supply configurations in both Spain and Italy. Chapter 3 describes in detail the minimum income protection structures in Spain and Italy, and the different ways in which those have evolved; chapters 4 and 5 provide detailed evidence on the development of Minimum Income Schemes in two Spanish regions and two Italian regions; chapter 6 applies the credit-dynamics theory to the different trajectories; and chapter 7 applies the theory to other European countries’ Minimum Income Schemes, and to the recent implementation of a national scheme in Italy, and Natili finds that all of these developments be explained by his theory.

Natili suggests that the reasons for Minimum Income Schemes becoming a live issue are the almost universal austerity agenda subsequent to the financial crisis and the increasing flexibilisation of the employment market. In this context, Minimum Income Schemes can result in political credit, and at the same time their restriction can also generate credit. Where the balance falls will depend on the political configuration of the country, and the differential strengths of different demands from voters and interest groups. If demand is weak or fragmented then there is little credit to be gained by implementing Minimum Income Schemes. Where demand for Minimum Income Schemes is strong, the country’s political configuration will determine whether political consensus develops or parties compete to establish Minimum Income Schemes. Demand might be as much for rolling back Minimum Income Schemes as for establishing them, so political parties might compete to gain credit from doing that.

The book is packed full of interview and other research evidence, each chapter contains substantial references, and the index is generally thorough: although it is odd that there are numerous mentions of universal benefits in the book, but no index entry for ‘universal’.

The book makes a persuasive case, although readers will need to be aware that it is a partial one. The reason for this is that it makes a common assumption that policy processes are rational and orderly. This is often not the case, and there is now substantial evidence of the chaotic nature of policy processes and of multiple policy accidents which appear to follow no theoretical model. Natili has been fortunate to find two policy pathways that fit a theory that he has developed. This is a substantial achievement: and future researchers might well be able to employ the theory to explain other divergent policy pathways. But just as Natili has found that existing theories could not explain the pathways that he was studying, so future researchers will find that Natili’s theory will not explain the policy changes that they are studying. To take just two factors that have caused policy change in the past: policymakers possess their own ideological commitments, and these can be powerful policy drivers in circumstances that are potentially sympathetic to those commitments; and the ways in which politicians frame issues can strongly influence public opinion, generating feed-back mechanisms, enabling politicians to meet the demands that they themselves have generated.

But having said that, Natili’s theory will always be worth considering as a possible explanation for policy events, so it is a theory that those who study the political feasibility of Citizen’s Basic Income should be aware of. Questions that might be asked are these: Where is the demand for Citizen’s Basic Income? Is it consistent and widespread, or is it fragmented? What credit would be gained by policy actors if they implemented a Citizen’s Basic Income? And perhaps just as importantly: What credit would be gained by abolishing a Citizen’s Basic Income?