Social Assistance Dynamics in Europe: National and local poverty regimes, by Chiara Saraceno (ed.)

(Policy Press, 2002, ISBN 1 86134 314 0) paper Back £18.00 Order this book
There are clear differences between the paths into and through social assistance in different countries, and to understand the causes of these differences the contributors to this volume “look at how national and local systems ‘construct’ and select social assistance recipients. This obviously involves looking at the incidence of poverty and at the demographic and social characteristics of the poor in the various countries and cities. It also involves looking at patterns and criteria for entitlement to support in the various national welfare systems. Finally, it means analysing the nation-specific patterns, that is the varying combinations and divisions of the spheres of social security and social assistance, and the manner in which they impact, react to and shape the life course of individuals” (p.2). The authors’ thesis is that “social assistance polices and the construction of the poor and of the socially excluded as social categories are as much a part of the process by which individuals and groups become poor or socially excluded, and/or exit from poverty and social exclusion, as labour market processes or family processes. They offer in fact – to different degrees and with different outcomes depending on the institutional framework, local cultures and circumstances – social definitions as well as resources, opportunities as well as constraints” (pp.2f). Thus social assistance policies can locate people in ‘poverty’; but they can also keep them out of it, and Saraceno mentions particularly child benefits in this connection (on pp.3f and 17).
Most of the book relates detailed studies on cities as local systems, on income support measures for the poor in European cities, on why some people are more likely to be on social assistance than others, and on paths through and out of social assistance. Together, these studies suggest that “countries …. differ in at least four dimensions: the existence or not of an explicit set of policies addressing poverty; the degree of categorisation (or universality) of assistance; whether income support is near pure subsistence level or at a decent minimum; and the kinds of obligations and controls attached to the status of beneficiary” (pp.5f).
The point of the project is to draw conclusions about the efficacy of social assistance measures. Eight different social assistance ‘regimes’ are identified, and this diversity, alongside the varied and detailed conclusions of the individual chapters, suggests that it might be impossible to draw robust general conclusions from the mass of data which the researchers employ. But whilst detailed study of data cannot always offer positive generalisations, it can sometimes question received wisdom, and an important result of this study is “the deconstruction of the myth of welfare dependence” (ch.6). The authors find no evidence of large-scale long-term dependency on benefits; but they do find evidence that benefits ‘targeted’ at the poor cause significantly more dependency than universal benefits. As Saraceno writes: “One of the main findings of our study is that close targeting and low benefits create a population of beneficiaries characterised by a high degree of vulnerability and difficulty in becoming completely autonomous from social assistance …. In contrast, where benefits are relatively generous, beneficiaries are more ‘mixed’ and the chances of success higher, it is less likely that the presence of a certain proportion of ‘difficult’ beneficiaries will have a strong stigmatising effect on the whole population of recipients, and on the institution of social assistance itself. Universalism and generosity would therefore appear not only more appropriate to a citizenship culture, since they lead to better social integration, but also more effective in the medium-long term: in so far as they prevent people from exhausting their resources and starting social assistance too late to be successfully supported” (pp.246f). And particular problems are found with ‘making work pay’ benefits: “Important as it is to acknowledge that efforts must be made ‘to make work pay’, the mechanisms involved in means-testing on a household basis risks creating further vicious circles, particularly for women. It can make it no longer worthwhile to work extra hours or to have an additional worker/earner in the household. This negative incentive affects in particular two-parent households, rendering them (and especially women) more, not less vulnerable to poverty and social exclusion should something happen to the couple’s relationship. Paradoxically, this occurs in the same country, the UK, in which the New Deal for Lone Parents strongly encourages lone mothers to take up paid work as a way of better protecting themselves and their children financially, and being better integrated socially” (pp.253f).
This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the reform of tax and benefits. If there is a second edition, then two additions would be useful: 1. The emphasis is on benefits, and a section on the move to tax credits and on other welfare-related functions of the tax system would help the reader towards a more complete understanding of the relationship between fiscal instruments and social dynamics. 2. There are plenty of pointers towards what might be more constructive benefits regimes, and particularly the evidence which points to universal benefits creating less dependency than means-tested benefits do; and for the book to argue from this material towards a prescription for the kind of social assistance system we might need if we wish to reduce welfare dependency would be to do policy-makers a major service. A discussion of the feasibility or otherwise of an EU-wide child benefit and/or citizen’s income might form part of such an addition.