Just Deserts: Justice, deservingness and social assistance

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This Deliverable explores the relation between justice and social assistance, a means-tested state benefit that is in principle non-contributory. It is the last of three fieldwork based Deliverables in ETHOS Work Package 5 on justice as lived experience. The experiences foregrounded in this strand of research are those of frequently excluded or oppressed sections of the population. Theories of justice often imply, and in some cases explicitly express, rationales for a welfare state in Europe. D5.5 examines what attention to policy and to stakeholders reveals about the relationship between social assistance and justice. The Deliverable is informed by, and meant to be read alongside, six case studies on Turkey, Hungary, Austria, Netherlands, Portugal and United Kingdom. Prior to analyzing the national case studies, the authors extracted from previous ETHOS Deliverables key theoretical insights to be tested and interrogated through experiences of social assistance, with particular attention to Deliverable 2.1 Report on the European Heritage of Philosophical Theorizing about Justice (Rippon et al, 2018), an introduction to the European heritage of philosophical theorizing about justice, including contemporary debates. The structure of this Deliverable reflects the structure of the previous philosophical Deliverable D2.1 following its headings: 1) What are the grounds of justice? (i.e., how can the existence of claims of justice be explained); 2) What is the shape of justice? (i.e. what are the main concerns of justice, and what kind of principles should regulate these); 3) What is the site of justice? (i.e. is justice a feature of political institutions, personal character and actions, or social relations?); 4) What is the scope of justice? (i.e. who has claims of justice on each other and are there distinctive claims of global and/or domestic justice).
We find that ideas of justice are mobilised, not to support claimants, but to support the ‘taxpayer’ and the citizen working poor who are represented as the losers if the welfare state is too generous. Respondents’ ideas about social assistance call on ideas of appropriateness or fittingness of treatment and might be seen to draw on Aristotelian ideas of moral character or virtue as a desert basis for economic distribution. This is particularly evident when considering the pattern of distribution. Using Van Oorschot’s (2000) ‘CARIN’ criteria: Control, Attitude, Reciprocity, Identity and Neediness we explore how reciprocity trumps deservingness and the implications of this for recognition. While the welfare state is often represented, in both political theory and practice, as one of the pinnacles of achievement of European citizenship, to be in receipt of social assistance is neither experienced nor viewed as the imprimatur of citizenship, but rather it raises serious questions of misrecognition. The emphasis on need means that those in receipt of benefit often feel the weight of social judgement on their personal behaviour, choices and values, or that they are the object of pity; the imposition of symbolic reciprocity, which may also be represented as enhancing capabilities, is undermined by the failure to recognise activities as work, and, in some cases, by imposing activities that are considered socially demeaning. Furthermore, we argue that attention to outcomes is not sufficient for justice concerns, and that in many cases the procedures for claiming were themselves experienced as an injustice even if the outcome was not.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages48
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2019

Structured keywords

  • Migration Mobilities Bristol
  • Perspectives on Work

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