Watts and Fitzpatrick, Welfare Conditionality

Beth Watts and Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Welfare Conditionality, Routledge, 2018, vii + 200 pp, 1 138 11991 8, pbk, £28.99

This book is a comprehensive, comprehensible, and densely referenced exploration of welfare conditionality. No single simple message emerges. Conditionality is diverse, different kinds of conditionality have different effects, and the answers to the questions as to whether conditionality works and whether it is ethical depend on the characteristics of the particular conditionality in view, and on the context within which that conditionality operates. What the book does unambiguously show is – as the introduction suggests – that conditionality is intensifying in welfare systems across the world. It is this fact that makes this book timely and important.

It will be important for readers to understand some initial choices made by the authors:

Firstly, the introductory chapter tells us that it is ‘Western’ welfare systems, in ‘Western democracies’, that will be studied. The countries studied are the UK, a number of other European countries, the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Interestingly, not Japan. In the context of Conditional Cash Transfers, Latin American countries are discussed. Unfortunately the complex conditionalities of the Indian welfare state are not tackled. An important conclusion is that the UK has experienced a particularly high level of conditionality intensification. This conclusion relies on comparison with welfare states that are in many ways similar to the UK’s, thus justifying the choice of countries studied.

A second set of choices made by the authors relates to the ways in which a number of words have been used. ‘Welfare’ is used to mean benefits systems, healthcare, education, and housing (particularly in relation to people who are homeless). This enables the connections between the different social policy fields and the relationships between their conditionalities to be studied, thus justifying the choice of such a broad definition. Three more words to which the reader will need to pay attention are ‘conditionality’, ‘condition’ and ‘targeting’. ‘Targeting’ relates to who receives a benefit or service. Receipt is based on ‘conditions’, and three types are listed: status (for instance, the right to reside); need (relating to both the category to which someone belongs – unemployment, disability, etc. – and the amount of money required for a household to reach an income threshold); and conduct (meaning behavioural conditions, such as job search). ‘Conditionality’ generally applies to the third of these methods of ‘targeting’. Again, it might have been helpful for these three words to have been clearly defined and distinguished from each other at the beginning of the book.

The first chapter raises issues to be discussed throughout the book: conditionality, social control, austerity, and public opinion. Chapter 2 studies the context in which conditionality operates: targeting ( – as we have seen, a broader concept that conditionality); the generosity or otherwise of benefits and services; and entitlement – that is, whether someone is entitled to a benefit or service, or whether the provision is a matter of discretion. Chapter 3 introduces techniques of conditionality: behavioural requirements, monitoring, verification, sanctions, and incentives. Chapter 4 studies attempts to ‘activate’ people who are unemployed, and within that group focuses on young people and people who are sick or disabled. This chapter also studies conditionality related to social housing and homeless people; and, in a Latin American context, Conditional Cash Transfers. The fifth chapter discusses the behavioural assumptions underlying conditionalities; challenges those assumptions on the basis of behavioural economics, sociology, and the discipline of social policy; evaluates the ‘scarring’ effects and financial cost of conditionality; and finds the harshest conditionalities to be a method of social control applied to low income groups. This finding leads into the subject of the chapter 6: the ethics of conditionality. Discussions of rights, utilitarianism, contractualism, communitarianism, paternalism, and social justice, lead the authors to the conclusion that a variety of normative perspectives need to be employed in order to evaluate the ethics of particular conditionalities, and also to the view that from multiple perspectives there are serious ethical objections to benefit sanctions. The concluding chapter asks how relevant much conditionality is in a context of changing employment supply, contains a discussion of which normative ethical principles might be useful in which contexts, contains an equally useful set of questions to be asked about any particular conditionality, and redirects the reader’s attention back away from conditionality and towards other forms of targeting, entitlement, and generosity.

One conditionality that we don’t find discussed is household structure. Means-tested benefits are routinely conditional on the kind of household in which someone lives. For instance, a lone parent in receipt of an in-work or out-of-work means-tested benefit might lose that independent income if they move in with someone earning an income. This suggests that household structure can be just as important a conditionality as those discussed in the book.

The book mentions Citizen’s Basic Income only once in passing. In one sense, this is fair enough, as the book is about conditionality, and Citizen’s Basic Income is entirely unconditional in the sense in which ‘conditionality’ is used in the book. However, it would have been interesting to see a discussion of the likely effects of a lack of conditionality. Perhaps another book.