van Oorschot, Roosa, Meuleman,and Reeskens, The Social Legitimacy of Targeted Welfare

Wim van Oorschot, Femke Roosa, Bart Meuleman and Tim Reeskens, The Social Legitimacy of Targeted Welfare: Attitudes to welfare deservingness, Edward Elgar, 2017, xviii + 366 pp, hbk, 1 78536 720 5, £105

‘Who should get what, and why?’ (p. 4) is a question at the heart of the debate about the social legitimacy of welfare states and about the reform of benefits systems; and it is the question at the heart of this timely, well-researched, well-written, well-edited and important book.

In their introduction, van Oorschot and Roosma find that there are three research approaches to their subject: study of the institutional characteristics of benefits; study of public images of target groups; and study of how the public views the deservingness of different groups. In relation to these three different perspectives, they find that targeting divides society into recipients and non-recipients, thus reducing social legitimacy, whereas more universal benefits achieve greater social legitimacy; and that the public has negative images of people in poverty, the unemployed, black single mothers, and immigrants. They find that public perception of deservingness is reduced where someone is thought to have failed to exercise ‘control’ over their neediness, where the poor person’s ‘attitude’ is less than compliant, where ‘reciprocity’ appears to be lacking, where someone’s ‘identity’ is different from ours, and where ‘need’ is less than other people’s perceived needs. These ‘CARIN’ factors function together to generate public perceptions of undeservingness; and such perceptions of deservingness relate to the institutional design of benefits systems and public images of target groups to generate social legitimacy or illegitimacy for benefits systems. This book is mainly about the five deservingness criteria, but the reader will often find that perceptions of deservingness sometimes overlap with public image, and that institutional design often responds to deservingness criteria, so the boundaries between the three factors are not always clear.

The book is divided into ten sections, although again the reader will discover overlap. Part II, following the introduction, studies geographical, temporal and social-structural variations in deservingness rankings, and finds that it is difficult to establish a universal ranking of deservingness, and that there are rather a lot of ‘welfare egalitarians’ who choose not to rank different groups in terms of their deservingness. It also finds that ‘control’ and ‘reciprocity’ factors affect both legislation and perceptions of deservingness; that ‘identity’ affects only perceptions of deservingness; and that ‘need’ and ‘attitude’ affect neither very much.

Part III, on the cognitive basis of deservingness opinions, finds that incorrect beliefs about benefits are associated with perceptions of undeservingness; and that negative unconscious attitudes towards unemployment benefit recipients correlate with the view that the level of unemployment benefit should be reduced.  Part IV finds gender and racial biases in media images used in relation to poverty, and that different ‘CARIN’ factors are employed in relation to different groups. Part V finds that a higher unemployment rate reduces support for unemployment benefit conditionality, as does higher numbers of recipients of unemployment benefit; and that benefits retrenchment can increase perceptions of deservingness, as can GDP growth. This latter result is important as it confirms other research that has found that policy change affects public opinion as well as public opinion influencing policy change. [1]

Part VI finds a complex picture in relation to the strength of the obligations that members of the public expect benefits recipients to face. Part VII finds that social workers, in close contact with the details of benefits recipients’ lives, are more likely to think claimants deserving than administrators who do not experience such close relationships with claimants. In relation to discretion exercised by street level bureaucrats, it finds that deservingness assessment affects the implementation of policy, and, in particular, that higher perceived ‘need’ affects decisions to a greater extent than perceptions of ‘reciprocity’, ‘legislation’, ‘control’ or ‘attitude’. This part of the book also finds a correlation between self-interest and deservingness opinions, and no relationship between deservingness opinions and either income level or level of education.

Part VIII finds that the ‘CARIN’ criteria have more effect in relation to generally disliked groups, such as immigrants, than to other groups. It also suggests that the presence of larger numbers of immigrants causes a society to experience differentiated levels of trust in different groups, which undermines the more generalised trust on which a welfare state depends.  Part IX finds that in the United States the rich are generally perceived to be undeserving, and in particular undeserving of tax cuts. The book’s final chapter concludes that ‘welfare legitimacy seems to presuppose that beneficiaries of policies are viewed as deserving to the degree that they meet one or more of the CARIN criteria’ (p. 341).

The statement on page 19 that ‘survey studies in the Netherlands … indicate that only a minority of about 20 to 30 per cent are in favour [of a Citizen’s Basic Income]’ is now out of date. The figure is now close to 50%. This is not a criticism of the book: it is rather a statement that public opinion can change very fast; which in turn suggests that, in relation to unconditional benefits, the CARIN factors are becoming less relevant than they were. This is perhaps due to increasing levels of uncertainty in relation to the economy, the employment market, and ageing. More of us are now aware that we might need the welfare state. It would be interesting to see the research on which this book is based repeated in five years. Conclusions might have to be revised: and as the salience of the CARIN factors changes, we might find unconditional benefits implemented for more groups of people, and we might find – as the book suggests – that universal benefits can achieve greater social legitimacy than targeted ones, and that a welfare state changing in a universal and unconditional direction can cause changing public opinion to reduce even further the effect of the CARIN factors.



[1] Staffan Kumlin and Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen (eds), How Welfare States Shape the Democratic Public: Policy feedback, participation, voting, and attitudes, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2014.