Can we still talk about ‘social citizenship’? Clarifying the effects of welfare conditionality

June 12, 2017     Leave a Comment

Daniel Edmiston from the University of Leeds suggests that greater attention to the constitutive elements of citizenship can help clarify the significance of welfare conditionality and its bearing on social rights.

Social policy analysis routinely suggests that welfare reform is damaging the social rights of vulnerable groups. But what does this actually mean? Recognising (and overcoming) the conceptual vagueness of social citizenship might help provide some clarity.

Strictly speaking, the imposition of any requirement to attain or claim public welfare undermines its inalienable character as a social right. However, public institutions and policies regularly impose conditions that determine the coverage and quality of social ‘rights’. Many have argued that some degree of contractualism is necessary to manage and resource public social services and transfers effectively. Even ostensibly universal entitlements have conditions attached to them within a politically defined community.

For example, a child’s right to education is determined by the catchment area in which they live. If the catchment area of a good school is located in an expensive place to live (which it very often is), this will affect who can fulfil the conditions attached to accessing this public good. Invariably, this shapes the accessibility and quality of education received across the population with significant stratificatory effects. Even universal entitlements then, with procedural conditions attached to them, can undermine the equalising function of social rights.

When it comes to the right to social security, our entitlements are even more contingent. Age, living arrangements and engagement with the paid labour market can all greatly affect generosity and coverage. Many have suggested that recent rounds of welfare reform have extended, personalised and intensified welfare conditionality in the UK. Crucially though, it remains unclear at what point the diminishing value of welfare, and increasing conditions attached to it, compromise its status as a right of social citizenship.

This is principally due to the conceptual indeterminacy of social citizenship and its consequent lack of clear boundary limits and definitions. Here, social citizenship can be understood as something of a Sorites Paradox. A Sorites Paradox refers to the problem of conceptual vagueness, or rather the indeterminate applicability of key terms. Consider a heap of sand; if one grain of sand is taken away, a heap still remains. If another is removed, the same applies, and so on. However, at some point the collection of grains becomes so small that the sand can no longer logically be considered a heap. The difficulty comes in trying to identify the particular point at which this occurs.

Similarly, let us turn to the example of social citizenship. Analytically, it is worth thinking of social citizenship, in its paradigmatic form, as a heap of sand. As the value of welfare provision diminishes and the conditions attached to its receipt increase, the grains of sand that comprise the rights and status of social citizenship diminish over time. However, the difficulty comes in identifying the minimum conditions that safeguard the status of social citizenship – that is, the crucial difference that distinguishes citizenship from non-citizenship. In other words, at what point might we consider welfare conditionality to have rendered the rights of social citizenship ineffectual in safeguarding an equality of status notionally guaranteed through membership?

To answer this question there seem to be at least three key considerations of relevance: what effect is welfare conditionality having on the ‘effectiveness’, ‘inalienability’ and ‘universality’ of social rights? Reviewing the existing evidence and literature, increased welfare conditionality, alongside regressive changes to the tax-benefit system, has had a series of substantive effects on the social rights of citizenship. Firstly, it has made it increasingly difficult to safeguard even a basic minimum of public assistance for low-income social security claimants. Secondly, it has strengthened conditions of category, circumstance and conduct to weaken the inalienability of welfare entitlements. And thirdly, it has consolidated social divisions of public welfare to undermine the collectivisation of social risk and return.

Due to the indeterminacy of the central term it is difficult to identify the exact point at which an individual is deprived of the rights and status of social citizenship. However, for those most negatively affected by welfare conditionality and austerity measures, it is becoming increasingly difficult to characterise low-income social security claimants as in possession of the constitutive elements of social citizenship. Their dispossession of the same entitlements as other members of the citizenry not only compromises their equality of status but also the internal coherence of social citizenship in the UK context. It seems then that the term ‘social citizen’, or even ‘citizen’ may actually serve to obscure the experience and significance of welfare conditionality for those most perniciously affected by it.


This post is based on an article published in Social Policy and Society. For further information, please email:  

Social tagging: , , ,

2 Responses to Can we still talk about ‘social citizenship’? Clarifying the effects of welfare conditionality

  1. Laura says:

    An interesting piece. Thank you.

    It occurs to me that, for Disabled people, even the most basic definition of citizenship – the right to vote – has been taken away by a combination of welfare conditionality, and by the political desire to impose ‘austerity measures’. Local authorities too strapped for cash to make all polling stations accessible, or support all of those who need support to engage with and in their community, and the constriction of welfare benefit entitlement has ensured that many are unable to take part in society.

    I would also suggest that, for us Disabled people, there is also the matter of the UNCRPD, of which the UK is a signatory. No laws have been introduced to specifically embed it into our legislature but it could be, I feel, a useful tool to use in coming to a definition of social citizenship. In particular, it addresses the issue of socially constructed exclusion. Perhaps all could benefit if such a definition were to underpin what social citizenship rights are i.e. for society to fund those disadvantaged by them, the means to overcome barriers created in the interests of the majority and with scant regard to the ‘few’.

    Just a thought.

  2. peter says:

    Hi Daniel,
    interesting and well argued commentary in the round.

    opening statement – ‘greater attention to the constitutive elements of citizenship can help clarify the significance of welfare conditionality and its bearing on social rights.’

    closing statement – ‘It seems then that the term ‘social citizen’, or even ‘citizen’ may actually serve to obscure the experience and significance of welfare conditionality for those most perniciously affected by it.’

    So it seems that the greater the attention we give the concept the more obscure we recognise it to be. I can only agree.

    If we take a platonic approach (I don’t) to the significance of concepts such as social citizenship, it is an ideal separate from social life. If we take an aristotelian approach, then social citizenship is more of a process signifying the complexities of social power, social inequalities, the contradictory forms, functions and failures of which will bear all the hallmarks of of the society in question.

    Perhaps here lies the obscurity?

    Yet, as you intimate, those who experience the blunt end of present conditionality regimes will tend to have a less obscure account of what it feels like to be denied ‘social citizenship’ by virtue of being denied basic social resources.


Leave a Reply

ESRCAn ESRC large grant
University of Glasgow Heriot Watt University University of Salford Manchester Sheffield Hallam University University of Sheffield University of York