Welfare Chauvinism or Cash-Benefit Chauvinism?

by Gianna Maria Eick and Christian Albrekt Larsen

Particularly the Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated migrant workers’ key role in the functioning of European labour markets and services. The crisis has also exposed many migrants’ interlinked vulnerabilities, including their concentration in precarious work, thinner financial safety nets, and insecure social rights. Still, in political and public debates, migrants’ are often framed as a threat to European countries, and they have already lost social rights in some countries in recent years. In this context, welfare chauvinism, the attitude that migrants should be excluded from social rights, increasingly polarises the continent.

Is Welfare Chauvinism One-Dimensional?

Welfare chauvinism is usually believed to apply uniformly across various social rights. The political rhetoric of radical right-wing parties is usually geared to pose the question in this one-dimensional way too. This is important as such parties capitalise on welfare chauvinism as a winning formula: it is about “them” having access to “our” (whole) welfare state. One could label it “general welfare chauvinism”. The previous academic debates and empirical investigations have had the same focus on more or less welfare chauvinism. However, there is a need to better theorise differences in levels of welfare chauvinist attitudes across different social rights. Our point of departure is that existing historical welfare institutions influence public attitudes. More specifically, we explore whether welfare chauvinist attitudes are affected by whether social risks are covered by cash benefits or in-kind services in the existing programmatic structure of the welfare state.

Welfare Chauvinism across Cash-Benefits versus In-Kind Services

For our research, we collected the Welfare State Attitude Survey data in 2019 across three different welfare regimes: social democratic (Denmark/DK), conservative (Germany/DE) and liberal (The United Kingdom/UK). Furthermore, we focused on a specific migrant group – workers from Eastern Europe – for two main reasons: first, Eastern European workers are a sizeable group in all three countries. Second, this is the group with the most questioned social rights, as the mobile European Union-workers in principle are entitled to the same social rights and charges as natives. They are, in principle, also allowed to transfer social rights across borders, for example, sending child benefits to children residing in origin countries. The Figure below shows the means of welfare chauvinist attitudes on a 0–4 scale across ten cash benefits and in-kind services and the vote in the last general election.

We find that the Danish and German public was more willing to give access to the in-kind services (healthcare, school education, childcare service and university education) than to the cash-benefits (unemployment benefit, child benefit for children living domestically, child benefit for children residing in the origin country, childcare benefit and social assistance). The British public was also more willing to give access to in-kind services (school education and healthcare) than to cash benefits (childcare, child benefit domestic, child benefit origin, working tax credit, unemployment benefit and social assistance). Housing is a mixed case, which is also reflected in the results. We also find that it matters whether the same social risk is covered by cash benefits or in-kind services: The public was more willing to give access to the in-kind childcare service in Denmark and Germany than to the childcare benefit in the UK. The public in Denmark and Germany were also more willing to give access to in-kind childcare services than to child benefits. Finally, national state boundaries still matter: In all three countries, welfare chauvinist attitudes were higher for child benefit received by Eastern European workers with children residing in the origin country than domestically. As seen in the Figure, the level of welfare chauvinism increases going from left-wing voters to radical right-wing voters, which is in line with previous research. However, importantly, we still find significant differences across cash benefits and in-kind services within the electoral segments.

Why would the Public Oppose Cash Benefits for Migrants?

We propose four characteristics that may make the public more willing to grant migrants access to in-kind service than to cash benefits:

1) Lower level of transferability: Welfare chauvinism across in-kind services is lower as those do not violate the basic principle of social rights being for residents living permanently within the state borders.

2) Second, lower imagined potential for cheating:It is easier for the public to imagine that migrants would have a possibility to claim cash benefits they are not entitled to than they have for in-kind services; for example, receiving social assistance or unemployment benefits while working in the shadow economy. Consuming in-kind services such as education, healthcare, or childcare requires the presence of the recipients and the right to entitlement is typically monitored by public employed frontline personnel who function as gatekeepers.

3) Weaker imagined giver-receiver-link: The imagined link between tax or insurance payment and in-kind service consumption is more indirect, as most people have a hard time calculating the value of in-kind services in comparison to cash benefits. The looser “giver-receiver” link of in-kind services is crucial for welfare chauvinism as natives in European destination countries often hold the (misguided) perception that migrants take more out than they pay in.

4) Higher imagined positive externalities: Migrants in Europe are often imagined as being non-integrated in society. Thus, in-kind services can be imagined to enable labour market participation and a more comprehensive integration of migrants that can benefit welfare states both socially and economically.

In-Kind Services: A Possible Solution for the Migration-Welfare Nexus?

Our research demonstrates that public attitudes in North-Western Europe are not simply divided into being for or against equal social rights for migrants. In contrast, our research suggests what could be labelled “cash-benefit chauvinism”, namely, strong public support for excluding migrants from cash benefits, while we find relatively low levels of public welfare chauvinism across in-kind services. Hereby, our research provides further evidence for the overall theoretical argument that welfare chauvinism is shaped by the institutional structures of the welfare states already in place and supports the argument that welfare chauvinism varies across different social rights. These results could have important implications for the future of the welfare state as they point to in-kind services (often referred to as social investments) as a fruitful way to combine migration and welfare states. Yet research suggests that in-kind services, such as education, labour market integration or childcare, are often not only harder to access for migrants (at least for short-term work migrants) but also less effective in improving their career and employment prospects than they are for natives. Reasons for this can be eligibility barriers, information gaps, weaker social networks, and financial constraints, as well as (both institutional and individual) discrimination and a limited supply of in-kind services.

A more comprehensive understanding of migration-welfare nexus is pivotal for the future of Europe. The unequal economic development across EU countries and the unequal ageing of the European workforce make the employability and participation of migrant workers key in securing economic recovery. Ensuring the social rights for migrant populations is a vital part of securing a mobile European workforce, but at the same time, these rights need to be accepted by the public of host countries.

This blog post is based on an article published in the Journal of European Social Policy.

About the Authors

Gianna Maria Eick is a lecturer at the University of Konstanz and postdoctoral researcher in the EU Horizon 2020 Project “The Future of European Social Citizenship”.

Christian Albrekt Larsen is a professor at the University of Aalborg and Director of the Centre for Comparative Welfare Studies.

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