Convenors Anna Wood and Courtney Hallink provide some background to the upcoming conference ‘The state and social welfare in the 21st century‘ which takes place from 7 – 8 April 2022.

The expansion of social protection and welfare alongside prevailing neoliberal agendas has given rise to divergent narratives about what periods of austerity have meant for social welfare provision. Is it a politically convenient and superficial response to worsening living conditions or does it offer more long-term, emancipatory redistributive potential?

The unprecedented conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic magnified the importance of welfare states and shone a light on longstanding questions associated with it. The swift introduction of emergency programs around the world – nearing 4,000 at the highest estimation – was at once met with enthusiasm and a renewed push for more radical proposals like basic income and a scepticism about a short-term and tokenistic response to crisis. Cultural assumptions about the eligibility of working-age adults to social assistance were disrupted, yet perhaps only temporarily so. Borders became more firmly closed, highlighting the exclusionary power of citizenship to various forms of state support.

The pandemic has therefore given us the opportunity to think through the relationship between austerity and social welfare and to provide answers to some of these questions. This conference will bring together scholars working on diverse research projects in contexts around the globe that speak to these themes.

Conference summary

In the first session, chaired by Anna Wood (University of Cambridge), we will hear about how the provision and absence of support during Covid-19 has alternately raised new questions about the role of the state in the provision of social welfare. Abigail Benhura, Lena Gronbach and Sikhanyiso Masuka (University of Cape Town) will discuss how the absence of social protection shaped informal workers’ perceptions of the state in novel ways in Zimbabwe. Nabila Idris (University of Cambridge) will present the case of Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry to explore how, despite the extension of social protection to more vulnerable groups during the pandemic, workers continue to be systematically denied social protection. Next, Shruti Iyer (Oxford University) will discuss payments made to family members of those lost during the pandemic and what they tell us about the moral obligations of the state in India. Finally, Hangala Siachiwena (University of Cape Town) will examine the interplay between Covid and elections in shaping the Zambian government’s approach to social policy.

The second session, chaired by Nabila, will explore and build on the sometimes-contradictory narratives of austerity and neoliberalism. Sruthi Herbert (University of Edinburgh) will be interrogating the apparent expansion of welfare spending through the study of how, during the pandemic, the Indian state repurposed pots of unspent funds which had already been allocated to construction workers. Ishan Kurana (University College London) and John Narayan (King’s College London) will explore how the apparent (re)introduction of Keynesian economics in the Global North following the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic has only been made possible by the deepening of neoliberalism in the Global South. Next, Peter Sloman (University of Cambridge) will reflect on what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us about the politics of cash transfers in 21st century Britain, and how policy debate might develop in the 2020s. Finally, Anna Wolkenhauer (University of Bremin) will discuss the dialectics of state formation in Zambia by showing how neoliberalism is built into social protection through a focus on two specific social programmes: cash transfers and smallholder subsidies.

Manali Desai (University of Cambridge) will chair the third session on citizenship and the questions it raises in relation to inclusion and exclusion to welfare. Reflecting on the increased measures of vigilance against Roma migrants in the European Union since the onset of the pandemic, Urmi Bhattacharya (University of Delhi) will explore how elements of citizenship represented through residence and ethnic belongingness restrict the access of Roma to welfare provisions and rights and what this means for Roma identity. Courtney Hallink (University of Cambridge) will discuss how unemployment insurance legislation implemented during segregation and apartheid continues to create and reinforce racial and class stratification in contemporary South Africa. She will situate this in the implementation of the emergency Coronavirus Grant and the debates about a basic income. Finally, Lisa Riedner (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich) will trace municipal workfare-state bordering practices towards EU citizens as part of emerging policy fields centred on the notions of ‘poverty migration’ and ‘benefit fraud’ on an urban, national and EU-European scale.

The final session will be chaired by Franco Barchiesi (Ohio State University) and examine various tensions and contradictions between cultural values, ideological thinking, and normative attitudes about work and welfare. In Ruoxi Liu’s (University of Cambridge) presentation, she will discuss the role family expectations, peer pressures and traditional social values play in self-employed cultural workers choosing to opt-out of social welfare systems.  Ngoc Minh Luong and Yueran Tian (Bielefeld University) will explore the contradictions between demands for over-time by workers in China and Vietnam and the pressure from policy makers and NGOs operating in both countries to limit labour hours. Next, Meredith McLaughlin (University of Cambridge) will discuss her work on how the contemporary Indian state is characterised simultaneously by development discourses consistent with neoliberal values of entrepreneurialism and self-sufficiency, and the continued promotion of welfarist services. The session will conclude with Karyn Vilbig’s (New York University) work on attitudes towards welfare in the United States. She will discuss how welfare is imagined amid the shifting discourses of the post-liberalisation state and how notions of government care feature in the aspirations of rural citizens.

Liz Fouksman (King’s College London) will give a keynote at the end of the conference, sharing insights from her own research as well as drawing out some of the key themes, ideas and questions that emerge across the four sessions. Her research on attachments to work in contexts of high unemployment challenges new imaginaries of distribution and we are excited to hear how her insights from southern Africa and the global movement for basic income might speak to those presented throughout the two days.

Register for the conference and see the full programme.

  • Posted 11 Mar 2022
  • Contributor Anna Wood and Courtney Hallink
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