The difficulties of universal redistribution in the age of providence chauvinism
Previous studies have found substantial support across Europe for creating a universal basic income system. Yet as Matthias Diermeier and Judith Niehues explain, there is also broad support for restricting immigrants’ access to state benefits. Drawing on new research, they assess how these two perspectives shape broader attitudes towards well-being.
Several European countries with substantial welfare states have admitted large numbers of immigrants in recent decades. This has resulted in a significant increase in diversity. In Germany and Sweden, for example, the share of the foreign-born population rose to 16% and 20%, respectively.
These trends have caught the attention of academics. In a new book, political scientist Yascha Mounk traces the evolution of “diverse” democracies, calling the ongoing ethnic heterogenization of Western democracies a “great experiment”. According to him, the transition from monocultural to multi-ethnic societies entails significant risks for social cohesion and the degree of democratic inclusiveness.
At the political level, there has been a major anti-immigration backlash resulting from the rise of the populist radical right in most mature democracies. The influence that nativist parties have developed has not only left its mark on immigration policies, but has also sparked discussions about the future of the welfare state and whether immigrants should have full access to benefits.
Previous research suggests that welfare programs lose public support if they target vulnerable ethnic groups. Mounk echoes this conclusion and echoes the traditional view that only universal welfare programs can be “politically viable”. However, our recent research suggests that even support for universal social protection programs may be challenged in diverse societies.
A universal basic income
The most universal of all social protection programs is the Universal Basic Income (UBI). The policy of paying all members of society a fixed salary, regardless of their status, enjoys substantial support across Europe. Data from the European Social Survey indicate that support ranges from 70% in Hungary to 38% in Sweden.
On the face of it, this seems to confirm the principle that universal redistribution enjoys popular support, especially among those who endorse progressive values and place themselves on the economic left. However, as we show in a recent study, when we examine this support in more detail, it becomes clear that across Europe supporters of a universal the basic income requires fairly strict eligibility conditions for immigrants.
As shown in Figure 1 below, less than seven percent of universal basic income supporters in Hungary would grant immigrants access to social assistance even after living in the country for a year. Half of German supporters of basic income would require immigrants to have worked and paid taxes for a year before accessing benefits, while nearly a quarter would limit eligibility to naturalized citizens.
Figure 1: Well-being conditioning among supporters of a universal basic income
Source: Round 8 of the European Social Survey, ESS (2016)
These findings strongly suggest welfare chauvinism: the preference to limit redistribution to a specific intra-group, in this case defined by nationality. Furthermore, a large group of those who support (universal) social assistance in Europe want to ensure that immigrants have ‘earned’ their share before being allowed access to social assistance. This is especially the case for people who generally do not have anti-immigration sentiments but who adhere to meritocratic values.
The findings add another perspective to our understanding of support for welfare programs in diverse societies. Policies like a universal basic income seem to be more popular than targeted spending increases for vulnerable groups like immigrants. But even proponents of a universal basic income are prone to social chauvinism. As a result, far-right populist actors no longer tend to position themselves as opponents of welfare programs, but rather as advocates of redistribution for their native “group”, pushing for policies that directly exclude or indirectly the foreign population.
Beyond Pure Anti-Immigration Sentiment
Social protection programs open to a larger part of the population, such as pension schemes, are more popular than programs targeting particular groups such as unemployment insurance, since people are often held responsible for ‘be unemployed. This is called the “deserving well-being hierarchy”. In another recent study, we unravel different layers of social chauvinism to show how discriminatory social preferences have the power to amplify this “hierarchy of merit”.
Different attitudinal variables that reflect anti-immigration sentiment (economic and cultural) can be isolated from another component that we call “allegedly rational welfare chauvinism”. While anti-immigration sentiment is more closely tied to support for a populist radical right-wing party, “allegedly rational welfare chauvinism” combines generally positive economic and cultural attitudes toward immigration with support for strict conditionality regarding the eligibility of immigrants for social assistance.
Our results are shown below in Figure 2. The figure plots regression coefficients to show the impact of anti-immigration sentiment and “supposedly rational welfare chauvinism” on welfare support. The figure includes observations on two different welfare principles, whether individuals believe it is the government’s responsibility to protect the standard of living of the unemployed and whether it is the government’s responsibility to protect the standard of living of the elderly.
Figure 2: Effect of anti-immigration sentiment and “allegedly rational social chauvinism” on welfare state preferences
To note: The figure shows support for the principle that governments should have a responsibility to protect the standard of living of the unemployed and the standard of living of the elderly. The lines indicate the confidence intervals. Lines located entirely to the left of the vertical line indicate that there is a negative impact on the support. Lines located completely to the right of the vertical line indicate a positive impact on the support. Source: Round 8 of the European Social Survey, ESS (2016)
As the figure shows, the well-being of the unemployed is endangered by both anti-immigration sentiment and “allegedly rational welfare chauvinism”. In both cases, the lines are entirely to the left of the vertical line, indicating statistically significant odds ratios less than 1. In other words, there is reason to believe that a large coalition of people with feelings anti-immigration or a rational approach to the welfare state oppose state intervention to protect the unemployed.
In contrast, state interventions to secure the standard of living of the elderly prove more popular among those with anti-immigration sentiment and especially among supporters of the populist radical right. Clearly, this openly chauvinistic welfare group would divert state money from a potential outside group (the unemployed) to a potential group (the elderly). When it comes to state support for the elderly, however, the “allegedly rational welfare chauvinists” display similar preferences to the rest of society. Since this variety of social chauvinism is mainly concerned with the sustainability of the welfare state, it would “only” reduce transfers to the unemployed.
Ensuring Welfare State Support in Diverse Societies
In times of increasing immigration, the “new progressive’s dilemma” describes the fear of “progressives” being forced to choose between frictionless borders for immigrants and a generous welfare state. In this regard, Yascha Mounk rightly points out that a particularistic welfare state (based, for example, on identity politics) that designs very specific programs for very specific (vulnerable) groups tends to run counter to public support. .
Our analysis shows that popular universal social protection programs such as Universal Basic Income also suffer from a pervasive vulnerability: the fear that non-indigenous people may benefit from social spending for free without having contributed to it first. Welfare chauvinism inherently challenges welfare spending on non-Aboriginals, but particularly in programs that appear to oppose the principle of meritocracy. Thus, the proposals for a universal basic income and social protection for the unemployed are attacked not only by people who have anti-immigration sentiments, but also by those who fear the sustainability of the welfare state.
The populist radical right has long since begun to interweave a grassroots nativist ideology with economic policy proposals. For good reason, there are significant legal barriers that prevent direct discrimination against immigrants in the provision of social assistance. Nonetheless, proposals to cut specific programs that non-Indigenous people rely on tend to find a disproportionate level of approval beyond the narrow populist radical right electorate.
Ultimately, future welfare states run the risk of becoming more particularistic and reciprocal. This would lead them to focus on programs that ensure benefits benefit natives or that recipients have qualified to be eligible by exceeding contribution thresholds. Overcoming the allure of welfare chauvinism is a rocky road that requires tackling long-established economic stereotypes.
In this sense, Yascha Mounk is right to point to the barely noticed successes of economic integration that many immigrant communities have experienced in previous decades. These facts need to be cited more frequently in public debates. If there is to be an inclusive narrative to promote universal and more generous social protection programs in diverse societies, it will need to focus on the strengths of diversity and diversification.
For more information, see the authors’ accompanying documents on the Review of International Political Economy and Rationality and society
Note: This article gives the point of view of the authors, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Lukasz Radziejewski on Unsplash