Selective Solidarity: The Politics of Immigrants' Social Rights in Western Welfare States

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Koning, Edward
Immigration , Social policy
Recent research has cast doubt on the suggestion that immigration weakens the societal foundation of a redistributive welfare state: there is little evidence of a negative relationship between immigration-induced diversity and public support for social programs. This research has largely overlooked, however, that unease about immigration is likely to have a more selective effect on solidarity. In some countries, the public has become less willing to share benefits with newcomers, and policy-makers have acted upon that sentiment, implementing limits and restrictions on immigrants’ welfare access. By combining quantitative data analysis of fourteen countries and a qualitative comparison of the Netherlands, Canada, and Sweden, this research explores when and how such expressions of selective solidarity are most likely to occur. The main findings are threefold. First, there is no evidence that actual patterns of immigrant welfare dependence are an important driver of selective solidarity or immigrant-excluding welfare reforms. Second, more important is how those patterns are politically translated. In the Netherlands, high levels of immigrant welfare dependence are commonly described as a sign that immigrants are lazy welfare cheats. In Canada and Sweden, the discourse is less accusatory and divisive, and attempts at welfare exclusion are consequently rarer. Country characteristics, in particular the political strength of anti-immigrant parties, the nature of national identity, and the structure of the welfare state, explain why the political translation differs between countries. Third, the primary constraint on immigrant-excluding welfare reforms tends not to be public opposition but legal prohibitions on differential treatment embedded in national legislation and international treaties. Sometimes politicians are forced to amend or withdraw from existing legislation before they can pass exclusionary reforms; in other cases the reforms are simply not possible. In sum, in some welfare states access to benefits has changed from an individual social right to a privilege for those lucky enough to be born in the country or to have lived long enough on its territory and acquired the necessary documentation. But this development is not unavoidable. Where forces of cohesion are stronger than forces of division, welfare states will likely address immigrant welfare dependence by more sanguine means than disentitlement.
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