Thursday 1 June 2017

What welfare really means

The General Election has brought some of the welfare issues back into the spotlight. This may be because the Labour Party now has a leader who believes in the good of welfare.

I have often struggled to find good arguments why welfare should not be a universal entitlement. The argument for universal welfare (all the up to basic income) are very compelling. What's wrong with helping people who cannot help themselves? It surely must be their right to be supported in times of need.

Sometimes, it's worthwhile to go back to what others have written on the subject since nothing is new under the sun, least of all the debate about welfare. So I came across this passage in Michael Lipsky's seminal study of 'Street-Level Bureaucracy. Dilemmas of the individual in public services'.

'The ways in which street-level bureaucrats deliver benefits and sanctions structure and delimit people's lives and opportunities. These ways orient and provide the social (and political) context in which people act. Thus every extension of service benefits is accompanied by an extension of state influence and control over their lives.' (p.4)

Lipsky is no dyed in the wool Tory, he was an American political scientist who investigated the effects of public services on those who delivered them (the local staff) and those who received them.

The passage is so insightful because he does not opt for the usual perspective on welfare that we commonly adopt when debating public services, focusing on the support function of welfare payments to individual. Instead, he tries to see it as a form of control that is being exercised over people. This resonates with the messages that are often articulated from the extreme left about the injustices of the welfare system such as Ken Loach's recent film 'I, Daniel Blake' and his critique of the welfare sanction regime. Lipsky's conclusions are different to those of Loach. Whilst Loach wants every one to have unlimited welfare payments, Lipsky articulates the malign effect of welfare on welfare recipients themselves, as welfare payments start to structure their lives and determine the way the behave.

The answer, Lipsky makes clear, is not to grant street-level bureaucrats more or total control (i.e. universal benefit) but to reduce their influence over our lives. Welfare is not innocuous, he argues, it restricts us and exerts power and control over us. Providing less welfare to all of us in the end liberates us, it allows us to shape our own lives.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting point made by Lipsky, I never quite considered the 'control' aspect. However, I'm a bit puzzled as to how exactly the people in need will be able to regain control and freedom over their lives without any welfare help.