RSA reform: what risks for our social protection model?

RSA reform what risks for our social protection model

Will the future reform of active solidarity income (RSA) be that of “compulsory work” as some denounce? trade union organizations ? After a first reading in the Senate, the National Assembly will study at the start of the school year the full employment bill which provides for 15 to 20 hours of activity per week for RSA recipients. If this initiative arouses fears on the part of several associations or elected officials from the left, as well as questions among academics, Minister of Labor Olivier Dussopt wants to be reassuring :

“What are these fifteen to twenty hours of activity? It is neither free work nor compulsory volunteering […] These are support, integration and remobilization activities […] These activities can be very classic – information, workshops for responding to job offers, writing CVs – but they can also take the form of personalized courses to remove obstacles, whether to mobility, housing or childcare. "

To encourage the return to employment of RSA beneficiaries and encourage exit from the assistance system, one of the solutions proposed by the executive is “reinforced support”. Earning income is presented as an access criterion to “dignity”, to individual emancipation, to “rediscovered autonomy”. The work would also allow the actor to no longer be assigned the status of "assisted", a stigmatizing social representation characteristic of the social disqualification beneficiaries of social minima, partly explaining the non-use of rights.

The government's intention would therefore be to enable the national community to“fulfil one’s duty of solidarity” by creating the conditions for activating the inactive. However, this public resolution is part of a long process of reconfiguration of the welfare state and the social protection system, causing some to fear the transition from a “Welfare State” to a “Workfare State”.

The weakened French social protection model

According to Mirelle Elbaum, former director of research at the DREAMS, Social Protection

"covers all institutional mechanisms, public or private, taking the form of a collective welfare system and/or implementing a principle of social solidarity, which cover the costs resulting for individuals or households from the existence of a certain number of identified social risks (health, old age, unemployment, poverty, etc.)".

The sociologist Gosta Esping-Andersen distinguishes three main categories of Western social protection systems ("welfare regimes"): liberal, corporatist-conservative and social democratic. For each, the degree of state interventionism, the financing model, the level and quality of public risk coverage vary. In this typology (may be subject to debate), the French system would belong more to the corporatist-conservative model. This was born from the institutionalization of post-war social protection which responded to a triple objective : promote worker productivity (health and productivity being linked); maintain their capacity to consume; create jobs.

The inspiration of the French model is said beveridgian concerning its objectives (generalized coverage) and called Bismarckian for its financing (social contributions). The post-war economic boom will support the balance of the system thanks to full employment and an increase in living standards. Nevertheless, the end of the Trente Glorieuses marks the beginning of the crisis of the welfare state and the erosion of its protective mechanisms.

If the sociologist Robert Castel associates this crisis with the“weakening of the wage society”, rising unemployment or societal changes – such as family change or the aging of the population – also tend to weaken the budgetary balances of public accounts (and to accentuate inequalities between qualified and less qualified workers). The protective mechanisms of national solidarity are diminishing and the use of individual insurance is encouraged by public authorities, as evidenced, for example, by the generalization of complementary company health insurance. This reform has instead reproduced social inequalities, with the most socially vulnerable populations being the least well covered..

In order to guarantee the sustainability of the system, the State has carried out several developments to expand or diversify resources (the creation of the Generalized Social Contribution in 1991 for example), limit public spending (the gradual transfer of support to private organizations which will pass these costs onto their policyholders), while trying to alleviate "the cost of labor" which would reduce its supply in a context of attractiveness and international competition. Indeed, if social protection generates well-being and promotes prosperity, it can become a burden on growth given its financing, which burdens public finances as Social Security expenditure increases. Since all this additional burden is generally offset by tax (higher or new) and/or by a variation in contributions (which tend to decrease in a context of globalized competition), public authorities maneuver to avoid capital flight and maintain high protection.

Debates (and untruths) therefore open regularly on the bearable or sufficient degree of public coverage, desired social protection model, its financing methods and its effects on the beneficiaries of the aid. However, for several decades, the control of public spending and the control of the debt have become the new compasses for public action, which has led governments to consider reforms to the social protection system.

The “activation” of social spending: symbol of a reconfiguration of the welfare state

The solidarity model is now considered through the prism of the “activation” of social spending, considered passive because the beneficiary would receive them without compensation. This philosophy flourishes in the political class – generally on the right – but also among certain academics, like the historian Pierre Rosanvallon, describing the solidarity system as“Passive welfare state”. This doctrine induces concrete changes, as explained by the sociologist Didier Demazière :

"Many reforms will attempt to adapt social protection systems to these new dominant economic approaches, in particular through policies of reducing the level of certain social benefits, privatization of certain social insurance (in favor of private health insurance and pension fund) and conditioning of benefits paid to unemployed people, in order to encourage them to look for work. These are the so-called activation policies."

This “activation” of welfare minimum recipients echoes the distinction between the “good poor” deserving solidarity and the “bad poor” being unworthy, as well as "workfare state" drawing inspiration from American conservative circles of the 1980s.

“Workfare”, which designates public policies intended to ensure reciprocity between society and the beneficiary of a public resource, has gradually imposed the idea that rights imply duties.

Across the Atlantic, this transformation of social policy was accompanied by a repressive penal policy towards former beneficiaries of social assistance. At the same time as making access to benefits more complex, the State has gradually tightened its penal policy. For sociologist Loïc Wacquant, this symbolizes the transformation of the American welfare state into a “Proactive penal state”. One of the vocations of this transformation is to “discipline” the poor, to create the conditions for acceptance of a system maintained and fueled by market logic.

According to this disciple of Pierre Bourdieu, this new way of treating poverty generates a new precariousness, normalizes social insecurity – justified by the mantra of responsibility – and “aims not to relieve the poor but to relieve society poor". If the government's ambition is not to copy the American model, it could prove to be a further step towards a new model of social protection, whose effects on the reduction of inequalities and the reduction of precariousness are not assured.

Rémi Boura, Doctor of Sociology, Paris Dauphine University - PSL

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock/RVillalon

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