A lot has been said about the sustainability of Western European style welfare states in the face of diversity. Robert Putnam argued that ethnic diversity in a neighbourhood reduces social trust in general, and drawing on this David Goodhart famously (as in commentators were calling it the Goodhart debate) said that the solidarity needed for support for the welfare state is predicated on the people who receive any benefits being 'like' those who are paying in their taxes. Hence diversity is in opposition to solidarity and so greater migration to the UK will, according to Goodhart, reduce support for welfare. As one research proposal puts it, 'support for welfare policies in Europe may be eroded by a growing perception that these principally benefit new immigrant minorities, who are disliked and perceived to be undeserving' (see Rob Ford's Welfare State Under Strain proje ct).
This, of course, raises the question of why any particular people are seen as undeserving. If we are to accept the theories of Goodhart and others, then the reason for dislike and perception of 'undeserving' is because 'they' are not like 'us' with regards to skin colour or culture. This is what 'diversity' refers to in these debates, but it seems to me to be a somewhat ridiculous definition: people can be different in all sorts of ways, and there's no need to accept that this form of diversity is the biggest driver. While there might be some people who think that an ethno-national kith and kin relationship is the only factor when it comes to who to to help, the evidence suggests a much more complex story which may underpin the simpler version. Indeed, the current British debate over skivers and strivers (another simplification into them and us) cuts the population along different lines and points to the fact that the more important 'diversity' is to be found in people's relationship to the welfare state.
As is often the case, the academic interest in this topic has as its problem the question of why people vote for the far right, or have lost faith in mainstream politics. An interesting approach comes from de Koster et al.'s 2012 paper examining the influences of 'welfare chauvinism' and 'welfare populism' on decisions to vote for 'new right populist' parties, that is Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV). For them 'welfare chauvinism' means 'strong support for economic redistribution with resistance toward distributing welfare services to immigrants '. 'Welfare populism', on the other hand, is the argument that the welfare state 'provides well-paid and comfortable jobs for self-interested civil servants who cater to a class of ‘welfare scroungers’ that freeload on the hard work of the ‘common man’ (de Koster et al. 2012: 6): support for egalitarianism/welfare is combined with the idea that the current arrangements are open to abuse by 'wrong 'uns'1. Give that the Party for Freedom use both arguments, the question to be asked is whether people support them for the former reason, the latter or both. What they find is that it is 'welfare populism' that underlies support for the PVV.
If we think about this in the context of a more general lack of support for the welfare state, we should ask whether it is the diversity of ethnicity that is important, or other diversities for which ethnicity is sometimes a proxy/sublimation. In my own work I've done a lot of interviews with working-class white people that fits the de Koster argument perfectly. When explaining the demise of a council estate or neighbourhood it's not ethnic minorities qua ethnic minorities that are the problem, but a whole host of categories that are problematic for particular reasons. In the estate I did my research on, the problems included drug dealers and associated buyers (disorder), the long-term unemployed (noise, image of area), asylum seekers (bored and hanging around), Londoners (shipped in but not mixing). These arguments were used against white and BME people at the same time as defending some ethnic minority people as they are fitting in and behaving correctly.
If we are to think of diversity as being about more than just ethnicity you can see how a lot has changed since the beginning of the welfare state. Back in the 40s and 50s people move around less, there was work for all that could work (and there was less self-employment), the vast majority of people were renting. Most people in an area would have had a relatively similar life pattern when it comes to our relationship with the state: for example... born in an NHS hospital, go to local school, leave school for job, married, live with in-laws, rent house, have kids, work, retire, get ill, die. But now, as Doug Stanhope says of US breakfasts, we have choices... lots go to university, some migrate, some buy/some rent, some don't have children, some go private for education and health. And some people are constrained too: there aren't enough jobs, social housing and so on.
Within this diversity there's a whole host of issues that can cause resentment. If you are renting and become unemployed you can get housing benefit, but not if you have a mortgage. All those people who've decided not to have kids don't get to receive any child benefit. If you go to work abroad you can come back and claim JSA even though you haven't paid in any tax or NI. If you are in housing need and the local authority can't house you (because there aren't enough social housing places) they will end up using private landlords, sometimes in nicer areas than the council houses. And, most importantly, if you failed at school or don't 'fit in' then it might be next to impossible to get a job: in an era of full employment this was very rare, but now we have millions of spare people there will always be some at the bottom of the pile who just can't get any work, no matter how low-skilled it is. It is in this diversity we can see a lack of support for welfare... people without children asking why they should pay tax so that others get child benefit, people with mortgages asking why their tax pays for others' rent, people with private health care asking why they pay for the NHS, people in PAYE asking why they pay more tax than those who have set up as self-employed, and so on.
Each of these diversities can be mapped onto ethnic, national or religious diversities such that the resentment is racialised. For example, the BME population is, in most places, younger so more likely to have children, and poorer. Therefore, if social housing allocations are based on need then BME people will be more likely to get assistance. Therefore these other diversities can be used to problematise ethnic or religious diversities.
What we rarely ask, then, is whether the attitudes discussed by Goodhart et al. have their root in a more racist/xenophobic mindset, or a dislike of particular types of people that has since become framed in terms of race and nation. When people say they are 'not racist but...', they may well not be racist at heart but have racist stereotypes (immigrant=scrounger) that leads to 'immigrants shouldn't be able to claim benefits', and this is an important distinction. The answer to such questions should guide both how we think about society (are the British racist? Or intolerant of those who do not contribute?) and respond, and how we change the welfare state. Instead of framing the debate as all relating to racism and immigration, we should examine the vastly more complicated workings of society, state and welfare, in order to find more just and transparently just ways of doing things.
1The term 'welfare populism' means something very different in the developing world where there is no welfare state. There it means appealing to the poor by arguing for a welfare system!