During the campaign for the last French presidential election, the theme (happily promoted by the media) was “the – mostly young – brown people are ruining the country”. This has gotten a bit old (and besides, we’re supposed to support the Arab Spring, after all). So, this time around, we got our marching orders for the upcoming election: let’s hate the poor! And so, it is apparently open season on benefit recipients.
Not recipients of universal benefits (like health care or family allowances), mind you, because everyone gets those. No, the stigmatization applies only to the recipients of means-tested benefits, mainly the working poor. And here again, the conservative media will find it easy to push straw men and stereotypes while the conservative parliamentary majority steps up with indentured servitude bills of one kind or another… and while the opposition is out to lunch.
See for instance, this blog post by sociologist Camille Peugny where he notes that the latest iteration of this idea is the conservative bill proposal stating that recipients of the RSA benefit (a very modest income support for the lowest income classes) should sign a “social utility contract” whereby, in order to receive benefits, recipients would have to work a few hours a week for public institutions or other structures of “reinsertion”, whatever that means.
The popular, and yet false, idea behind this is that the poor are idle, lazy, shiftless, have no work ethic and therefore are in need of some tough love to teach them the right values and force them into work. Of course, there is no basis for such an assumption except conservative ideology, social darwinism and a touch of Weberian puritan ethic.
The reality is that a significant proportion of these recipients do work (but often do not make enough money so that they do qualify for the RSA) and they often accept jobs (a requirement to get the benefit, if they refuse, the benefits may be reduced or cancelled altogether):
“The studies agree that even if the financial gain is minimal, beneficiaries of subsistence benefits generally prefer to take a job, and they often will take a job even if they incur a financial loss. The primary motivation for refusing work is not monetary.
In an article in French daily Le Monde, the former High Commissioner for Active Solidarity Against Poverty and who created the RSA, argued that the idea that beneficiaries of subsistence benefits wallow in idleness is all the more erroneous because “beneficiaries of the RSA are required, barring serious health problems, to seek a job and to be signed up at the [State Job Centre]” and thus “must comply with the requirement to accept two reasonable job offers”.
A study by the Ministry of Finance showed that if one fourth of RMI beneficiaries didn’t seek employment, it was primarily for reasons of poor health or personal constraints including the feeling of being unemployable due to a long period out of work, lack of a vehicle or child-minding issues.”
But the real effect of the bills that the conservative majority will keep proposing is more about stigmatization and dividing the working and middle classes before the election. After all, what does it mean to require benefit recipients to subject themselves to a “social utility contract’ if not to highlight their lack of said social utility, their uselessness to society, the fact that they are perceived as a burden to the system while contributing nothing to it.
And, of course, the jury in front of which the recipients are tried and convicted is the supposedly non-dependent, hard-working working and middle classes who are struggling in times of precarization. The finger is then pointed towards the “assisted” depicted by a conservative politician as a “cancer to society”. Stigmatization and scapegoating go hand in hand with often-raised specter of welfare fraud. Never mind that such fraud is always hyped using straw men rather than hard data (because those often turn out to be not very useful for the job of scapegoating.
This is a common strategy: when it comes to the construction of issues that are to socially produced as “the issues that we should care about”, such construction always involved focusing everyone’s attention to the bottom of social stratification ladder. That way, no one will really pay attention to what happens at the top:
“But what costs public finances most is tax fraud. This is estimated at 4.3 billion concerning lost income tax, 4.6 billion concerning lost corporate tax and between 7.3 billion and 12.4 billion in lost Value Added Tax. That does not include the numerous loopholes and legal tricks for avoiding paying taxes, both among individuals and corporations. But fraud in those areas does not appear to concern those MPs’ busy with proposing tougher legislation with which to target the poor.”
The same trick was played when the financial crisis exploded in the US. The finger was pointed at lower class (and a bit more subtly, blacks) for taking on mortgages that they could not afford (rather than the obvious fraud committed by lenders against these borrowers) so that very limited attention was paid to the financial dealings in the rentier and financial class.
Expect more of the same as austerity policies are implemented all over the OECD countries as the masters of the world extract more rent and the majorities in these countries are subjected to more precarization and shock doctrine. The only question is whether there is a breaking point. There may be in Europe, but the US public is too busy watching reality TV and contest programs.