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Conditionality and sanctions in welfare policy: broadening the debate

In our recently published book on Welfare Conditionality – part of Routledge’s Key Ideas series – we take a close look at the use of sanctions (and sometimes incentives) in social policy.

Our overarching aim in the book is to subject the idea of welfare conditionality to detailed inspection – conceptually, theoretically, normatively and in policy and practice. In future posts, we’ll delve into some of this detail, but in this, our first blog about the book, we want to start by outlining our approach to broadening the debate on welfare conditionality.

We seek to do this in three key ways.

First, we explore the use of welfare conditionality across a wide range of policy domains. In its archetypal form, the central objective of welfare conditionality is to (re)integrate unemployed people back into the labour market. The use of sanctions to secure compliance with work-related requirements has rightly been at the centre of debates about welfare conditionality, particularly given the controversy associated with the harsh forms of this kind of conditionality employed in the US and more recently in the UK.

But conditionality and sanctions are now used across a wide range of policy domains as a mechanism to promote a multitude of behaviours extending far beyond ‘work-seeking’. In Australia, receipt of various kinds of benefits is dependent on children being enrolled in school and having age-appropriate vaccinations. In England, there have been various moves to link access to, and security of tenure within, social housing to desistance from anti-social behaviour. Those who street homeless are a key group targeted by conditionality and other social control measures in many countries seeking to encourage them to engage with support and take up offers of accommodation. In several

US states, those who have tested positive in drugs tests can only maintain access to benefits (or regain it after a period of disqualification) if they comply with substance abuse treatment plans and test negative at the end of treatment. In what some might consider a sinister development, recent scholarship suggests sanctions in the social security domain are being used not only to enforce particular kinds of behaviour (e.g. looking for work), but particular dispositions and personality traits (e.g. looking for work with a confident and assertive disposition).

Second, we take an international perspective on welfare conditionality, with our analysis extending beyond its UK starting point to cover the use of sanctions and incentives to steer behaviour in Scandinavia, continental Europe, North America and Australia, and also, crucially, the Global South. For example, across Africa and Latin America, ‘conditional cash transfers’ (CCTs) are widely used as a means to reduce the poverty of low income families and incentivise a range of behaviours intended to improve health outcomes and reduce the poverty in future generations. Well-designed CCTs are supported by some scholars as an evidence-backed means of encouraging families to send their children to school or access health care, but there is fierce debate about value of conditional as opposed to unconditional cash transfers in achieving these ends, and on the ethics of using financial sanctions to achieve behavioural change on the part of some the world’s poorest people. By ranging across conditionality in these starkly opposing ways together, we hope to demonstrate the distinctive role that conditionality can play in different contexts, from being seen as a means of retrenching the social safety net in advanced welfare state context, to being part of the development of new structures of social protection where welfare states have not yet developed.

Third, we seek to broaden considerations of welfare conditionality normatively, by anchoring debates about the ethical legitimacy of conditional forms of welfare within broader moral and political philosophy perspectives. Our intention is to find a path out of the polarised and emotive nature of much current discussion around conditionality, which can often shed more heat than light.

While some (especially on the Left) are intuitively drawn to human and citizenship ‘rights’ discourses as a means of resisting and critiquing conditional forms of welfare, empirical research in moral psychology demonstrates that such ‘rights talk’ does not appeal to everyone, and may alienate some from a particular cause rather than win them over. The ‘moral foundations’ that people draw upon in making ethical judgments are in reality highly varied: some people prioritise the minimisation of harm or the importance of caring for others in making such judgments, while for others ideas of fairness, justice or rights predominate, or notions of ingroup loyalty or authority, cohesion and respect .

A core tenet of our book is that it is helpful to be able to speak in meaningful ways about welfare conditionality across these ethical and discursive divides.

This requires expanding the moral repertoire that we use to assess the evidence for or against particular examples of conditionality. Including but moving beyond the ideas of ‘rights’, we can and should employ the tools offered by other normative traditions – utilitarianism, contractualism, communitarianism, paternalism and social justice – to debate the appropriateness and legitimacy of conditional welfare.

We hope that by broadening the conditionality debate in these three specific ways, the book provides tools, frameworks and perspectives that can sharpen the focus of policy debates in this area, and prompt more considered reflections on our moral intuitions on the topic. The stakes are after all extremely high, with the impacts of conditionality – both intended and unintended – falling most heavily on the most disadvantaged groups across both the Global South and North.

This blog was written by Dr Beth Watts and Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick.

More details about the book are available here.

It is one output from the five-year Economic and Social Research Council funded project ‘Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, support and behavior change’ (grant number ES/K002163/2).

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