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'When someone uses the welfare state, the State gains a citizen.'

last modified Mar 08, 2016 02:10 PM
'When someone uses the welfare state, the State gains a citizen.'

A British citizenship ceremony. Source: wikimedia commons.

'The Government is conflating welfare deservingness, through taxes, with motivations to migrate', says Dorata when we meet in London over coffee on 2 March.

'Polish workers do not come to the UK for benefits. We know, from plenty of research, that they come looking for better opportunities in the labour market as a way to achieve desired living standards.'

Dorota's doctoral research explored the engagement and non-engagement with the British welfare state among Polish migrants living in London. As we talk about our respective projects, we discover important common ground in our data: in both cases we have found that migrant workers hold normative positions about welfare access that are underpinned by the ideas of conditionality and reciprocity - the idea that social security benefits should be earned, through work in the host Member State. We have both also found a self-declared reluctance among EU migrants to enforce their EU law claims to exportable benefits, such as child benefit. Our interviewees have described this reluctance arising from a sense that such practices are 'abusive'. This suggests rather more similarity between the normative views on welfare of migrants and their hosts than is portrayed in much of the press coverage about these issues.

Dorota and I also talk about the relationship between using welfare and being a citizen. Drawing upon classical sociological ideas, Dorota suggests that the use of social rights, including social welfare, can be seen as an expression of citizenship. 'By someone using the welfare state, you are gaining a citizen', Dorota says.

'We use social rights to become integrated. We don't become integrated and then use social rights.'

In this light, the idea of 'earned citizenship' seems peculiar; putting the cart before the horse.

The question then is how to balance this social theory perspective about integration, welfare and citizenship, with the normative position (that emerges from some interview data as common to many migrants and non-migrants) that welfare deservingness depends upon reciprocity and conditionality. The key seems to be getting the right vesting periods in place for benefits: linked to when contributions start and the effects of granting or denying access. We talk, for example, about limiting migrant workers' access to in-work benefits and the ways in which this might lead to greater exploitation of migrant workers who are in low paid jobs and no longer entitled to any 'top up' through tax credits. Domestic workers have an interest in preventing this sort of exploitation, if not from a social justice perspective, then motivated by a concern that exploitation may lead to undercutting of national employment protections and terms and conditions. 

Dorota has published some of the findings of her research as D. Osipovic 'Conceptualisations of welfare deservingness by Polish migrants in the UK' (2015) Journal of Social Policy 44: 729-746.