Welfare Policy from Below: Struggles against social exclusion in Europe, by Heinz Steinert and Arno Pilgram (eds.)

Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003, 304 pp, hb, 0 7546 3063 3, £45. Order this book

This book is the result of a three-year EU-sponsored collaboration between twenty researchers from eight university and research institutes on social exclusion understood as “the continuous and gradual exclusion from full participation in the social, including material as well as symbolic, resources produced, supplied and exploited in a society for making a living, organizing a life and taking part in the development of a (hopefully better) future” (p.5). The chapters are based on empirical studies conducted in eight European cities (including Leeds), and it is the particular qualitative approach to the study of social exclusion which gives this book its distinctive character: an approach which concentrates on particular events of exclusion (rather than on personal and family biography), on people’s reactions to events, and on the principles of legitimation employed in relation to welfare state resources: ‘earning’ them, being a ‘member’, and deserving ‘solidarity’ (p.8).

Unfortunately, the interview evidence is rather thin on some of the important issues (and this seems to be particularly the case in relation to the chapter on ‘subsistence’); but the authors have gathered sufficient evidence to enable them to draw some robust conclusions, and these are worth quoting in full:

  1. People do not accept charity easily. They do not want to be dependent. They would rather have a chance to ‘earn’ a decent living – not necessarily by wage labour or forced work for the community, but by work ….. they see as needed and meaningful.
  2. Family is a resource in difficult situations, but quite often it is also the source of difficulties. Unless it is based in strong patriarchal / matriarchal ideologies (which cannot be re-instated after they have lost their material basis) and when instead it turns into an exchange relation, its character as resource becomes precarious. Its solidarity gets confined to short-time emergency support.
  3. Welfare compensation for situations of social exclusion are made difficult by their ‘conditionality’ in three forms:
  • The insurance principle constitutes a selectivity of benefits according to regular, full-time and life-long wage labour. Those who do not fit this pattern are excluded and relegated to social assistance. With the latest economic developments, an increasing proportion of the labour force will not be in a position to meet these criteria.
  • Following a principle of economising, welfare benefits, which have always been made scarce and hard to get, are reduced and made conditional to means testing and other forms of (bureaucratic) eligibility.
  • According to a principle of multi-functionality welfare resources are organised under the assumption that they could at the same time function as regulators of the labour market, i.e. as incentives to accept wage labour. A clear separation of these functions might make things more manageable.

Situations of social exclusion are best coped with by using a multiplicity of resources. Rules by which such combinations of sources of income (wage, welfare, family) are hindered are disfunctional.

The principles above can most easily be met by a minimum income, or a ‘citizenship income’, or some similar unconditional provision of basic material resources for all (pp.268f).