Who deserves what in times of COVID19?

by Tijs Laenen

Nobody knows what the future holds for European welfare states. What seems certain, however, is that the current COVID19 crisis – after first creating a political consensus rarely seen before – is now opening up new debates about welfare deservingness that will spark intense political conflict in the years to come. This blog post reveals some of the most important deservingness discussions that are currently unfolding across Europe, using the Belgian welfare state as a telling example.

A political consensus rarely seen before

When the Belgian federal government announced a general lockdown in response to the growing COVID19 pandemic in mid-March 2020, the long-standing cleavages in the Belgian political landscape made way for a unique, rarely seen before political consensus. Almost all political parties and interest groups, across the ideological spectrum, agreed that it was the government’s role to help all who were in some way affected by the virus. People who fell ill, could count on fast and cheap healthcare, where all “non-urgent” interventions had to give way to COVID19. Employees who lost their job, received temporary unemployment benefits. Companies that were forced to close, received a nuisance premium. Working people with children could claim extra parental leave. Families suffering a loss of income could receive a supplement on top of their child benefits. And every citizen would be entitled to free train tickets.

The list of social support measures seems endless. They were also implemented at an unprecedented speed. Before the COVID19 outbreak, such measures would undoubtedly have been the subject of extensive and fierce political debates, rife with party clashes and ideological dividing lines. But during the first wave of COVID19, such debates were absent.

COVID19 made everything and everyone deserving

The answer to the question why there was so little political debate about the social support measures is in large part explained by the fact that the COVID19 made just about everything and everyone worthy, or deserving, of help in the eyes of citizens and policymakers. Research has shown that people rely on five criteria to determine whether someone deserves to make use of social benefits and services. In general, a person is considered more deserving in case he or she: (1) is not considered personally responsible for his or her needy situation (Control); (2) adheres to the norms and values ​​prevailing in society, such as showing gratitude for the help received (Attitude); (3) makes substantial contributions to society, either in the past, present or future (Reciprocity); (4) belongs to the dominant cultural group with which most people can easily identify (Identity); and (5) has serious financial and/or medical needs (Need).

During the first wave of COVID19, there was a broadly shared consensus that almost everyone met these so-called “CARIN criteria”, and should therefore be considered deserving of help. First, the virus outbreak was seen as a sudden, unforeseen and uncontrollable event, a clear case of force majeure. Those affected by the virus were not held individually responsible for this, and could therefore count on generous government support (Control). This also fueled the idea that the coronavirus “can happen to all of us,” making it easier for citizens to identify with the victims (Identity). Clearly, the people affected by COVID19 were not seen as a deviant group whose values ​​and norms diverge from the mainstream (Attitude). In “normal” times, by contrast, welfare claimants are often associated with negative stereotypes, of which the “lazy unemployed” and the “immigrant welfare tourist” are just two examples. On the contrary, it quickly became clear that the elderly in particular were most affected by the epidemic. This group is often considered to be more deserving of social welfare than other groups, mainly because most people assume that the elderly have made considerable contributions to society (Reciprocity). Additionally, the virus also affected many working people, who ended up in precarious situations, despite having a job. This made it clear that, in addition to a health crisis, the COVID19 was also a social crisis, confronting many of us with serious financial difficulties (Need).

The political consensus is withering away

After the first wave of COVID19, however, the political consensus seems to be gradually crumbling. Little by little, the public and political debates on welfare deservingness are starting again. A major issue in Belgium is that questions are being raised about the fairness of providing generous government support to people who can be held personally responsible for contracting and spreading the virus, by deliberately not complying with the rules issued by the government. What should be done for example with people who spend a vacation at an officially recognized risk destination, and not place themselves in quarantine on their return? But it could just as well have to do with companies that are deemed responsible for the further spread of the virus, by insufficiently enforcing social distancing among their employees. Increasingly, this emerging debate about personal control is linked to the issue of ethnic-religious identity. Especially from the political (extreme) right, ethnic minorities are held publicly responsible for the spread of the virus. For example, certain multicultural neighborhoods have been designated as hotspots of COVID19, because the ethnic minorities living there are supposedly less strict with the social distancing rules.   

In addition, the support measures taken by the Belgian government are also accused (especially by the political left) of taking insufficient stock of the individual needs of citizens and enterprises. Healthcare is beyond dispute, as it remains widely recognized as a universal right for rich and poor alike. There are, however, growing concerns about the universality of the many other social support measures. The free train tickets provided by the government were criticized most fiercely. Couldn’t that money be used more efficiently, by only giving it to people with a low income? Another example is the one-off compensation to recover the costs of energy and water, which was paid to all employees who became temporarily unemployed as a result of COVID19. Critics wondered, however, whether such a measure wouldn’t have been more effective (and fair) if it was targeted more selectively at people who really need it? The same story applies to entrepreneurs: was it such a good idea to give them all the same compensation in case they were obliged to close their business. Wouldn’t it be better if this “nuisance premium” differentiates more according to size and turnover figures, so that the government support ended up with companies that were really facing financial problems? A frequently heard criticism is that such uniform, universalist support measures only perpetuate (and perhaps even reinforce) the already existing social inequalities. The proposed remedy is a more selective policy that redistributes more to lower incomes.

Heading towards a political battle?

The end of the political consensus is, on the one hand, due to the growing realization that the many generous support measures come at an enormous cost, which imposes a heavy financial burden on current and future generations. On the other hand, improving scientific knowledge on COVID19 is also fueling debates about deservingness. Increasing knowledge about the causes of the virus (how it is contracted and how it spreads) could encourage discussions about personal responsibility. For example, research shows that overweight people are particularly vulnerable to corona infections and therefore have a disproportionate risk of being hospitalized with serious health issues. With that in mind, extra caution is advised to this group – not only for the sake of their own health but also to preserve the general hospital capacity. We are also gradually learning more about the economic and social consequences of the epidemic. Although the true economic impact remains to be seen, it is abundantly clear that COVID19 is detrimental to the Belgian economy. Also socially, the situation looks gloomy: COVID19 brought a new group of (often working) citizens into financial difficulties (the so-called “new poor”) in a very short time span, but also pushed the existing poor even deeper into poverty.

The longer the COVID19 crisis lasts, the stronger questions about deservingness will come to the fore, and the more pronounced the political cleavages are likely to become. Some will argue for less generous treatment of people (or companies) that are considered individually responsible for contracting and spreading the virus. For example, it is not entirely inconceivable that policymakers will start demanding higher user fees in healthcare from people who contracted the virus after deliberately not complying with the imposed government rules. In temporary unemployment schemes, too, the issue of personal control could become more important. For example, if someone temporarily loses his job because he or she is required to go into quarantine after attending a social gathering at which the social distancing rules were not followed, this person could be excluded from the scheme.

Others will argue for a more selective welfare state, reserved for people who are struggling financially. Those who become temporarily unemployed, for example, will only receive benefits if they have insufficient financial means. An often proposed alternative, known as “targeting within universalism”, is to provide a universal basis for all, supplemented by more-generous support for people with a low income. Although temporary unemployment benefits, to stick with the same example, would be available to everyone, higher amounts would be paid to persons with lower incomes. Obviously, the call for greater selectivity will provoke resistance from advocates of the social insurance paradigm, who argue for a welfare state based on reciprocity in which those who contribute more to society (through taxes or social contributions), receive more. After first creating an unusual political consensus, the COVID19 crisis now seems to work as a catalyst for political discussions on the future of the European welfare state.

About the author

Tijs Laenen is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for Sociological Research, KU Leuven. This blog post was written at the occasion of the publication of his new book Welfare Deservingness and Welfare Policy. Popular Deservingness Opinions and their Interaction with Welfare State Policies (Edward Elgar Publishing).

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