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Reciprocity and respect

By Steven Schwartz - posted Thursday, 12 May 2022

Australia's welfare system strongly values solidarity. Almost all its welfare programs are means-tested; benefits go only to those in need, giving the country the most redistributive social welfare system in the OECD (a club for rich countries).

Transferring money from wealthier households to poorer ones is an understandable aim, but means-tested programs can produce perverse incentives against working and saving. For example, recipients of assistance who accept a job and start paying income tax may find themselves no better off working than when they were on welfare. By eschewing reciprocity, means-tested programs also produce a social cost-the loss of public support for welfare.

Loss of public support for welfare

Redistribution produces a rivalry between those eligible to receive benefits and those that pay for them. The result is a spiteful climate in which critics denounce the legitimacy of welfare recipients' claims while those receiving benefits, and their political representatives, zealously protect their entitlements. This "we" versus "them" dichotomy has corrosive effects that extend well beyond just deciding who should receive welfare. For example, resistance to resettling refugees and to immigration is due, in part, to the (incorrect) perception that most immigrants receive assistance without making a corresponding contribution to society.


It is true that critics of welfare routinely exaggerate the extent of fraudulent claims. It is also true that, rather than a cost, immigration probably creates a net gain for an economy. Still, the ubiquity of negative opinions suggests that public support for welfare is tenuous and grudging. Government "crackdowns" on welfare "cheats" do nothing to improve public attitudes toward welfare; they just reinforce the idea that cheating is widespread. Such negativity is worrying because more people will require assistance as the population ages. Unless attitudes change, we can expect public resentment and discontent to grow.

Contrary to what some critics argue, the call for reciprocity is not a right-wing plot to cut welfare. As Beveridge understood, the best way to change negative attitudes is to introduce reciprocity into the system. In the UK, where the issue has been widely debated, all sides of politics and the trade unions have supported increasing reciprocity. The former UK Labour leader, Ed Miliband, promised that Labour would be the party that rewards "contribution, not worklessness."

Reintroducing reciprocity

Research has repeatedly confirmed that people are more likely to contribute to the general welfare when they know others are also contributing. There are four ways to introduce reciprocity into the welfare system: mutual obligation requirements, universal basic income, personal welfare accounts, and income-contingent loans.

Mutual obligation requirements. Mutual obligation requirements such as requiring welfare recipients to look for work are probably the easiest way to introduce reciprocity into a means-tested system. It is also possible to vary entitlements with work history providing lower benefits to those with long histories of unemployment.

Universal Basic Income (UBI). Lately, UBIs have sporadically appeared in the news. Advocates view a UBI as an economically efficient replacement for the current multitude of separate means-tested welfare programs. There are several arguments in favour of a UBI. Because everyone would be entitled to a UBI, there would be no need to assess whether claimants are eligible and require no policing to investigate cheats. The result would be lower administration costs. UBIs would also eliminate the stigma attached to welfare and eliminate the perverse taxes that trap low earners into welfare dependency. They would add a much-needed subsidy to low paid jobs, boosting consumption among low-income people and lifting economic growth.

Despite these virtues, a UBI has drawbacks. If it is too large, it could provide a disincentive to work. Also, despite the savings that arise from eliminating bureaucracy, a UBI would be very expensive to implement. It would undoubtedly require higher marginal tax rates, which means that, after taxes, most workers would see little benefit. The combination of high costs and minimal benefits caused Swiss voters to reject a UBI when it was put forward in a referendum. For our present purposes, the most troubling aspect of the UBI is the absence of reciprocity. Under a UBI, there is no link between contributions and benefits. Moreover, unless the UBI is very generous, targeted means-tested welfare programs will still be required.


Personal Welfare Account (PWA). Some writers have recommended PWAs as an alternative to the UBI. Workers would pay a share of their income into a PWA, which would receive favourable tax treatment. When needed, benefits would come from one's PWA. On retirement, people could use any money remaining in their PWAs to supplement their pension. In this way, PWAs give contributors the flexibility to adapt to life's vicissitudes. Think tanks from all sides of politics support PWAs, but they do have a downside. PWAs will lead to the accumulation of large sums, and governments have often shown themselves unable to allow a cache of money to remain unmolested. An alternative that highlights reciprocity, but is resistant to government plundering, is the Income Contingent Loan (ICL).

Income-Contingent Loan (ICL). In Australia and England, ICLs are used to fund university fees. Students borrow money to pay their fees and repay their loans through the tax system once they reach a certain income threshold. ICLs could also fund parental leave, unemployment assistance, and most welfare benefits. Instead of grants, recipients would receive ICLs. In effect, the government acts as a piggy bank, helping people to smooth the ups and downs of life. Most borrowers will repay their loans when their circumstances permit, but some may never be able to repay their loans in full. The entire population shares the risk of non-repayment.

Many details would have to be worked out in designing ICLs for social welfare: who is eligible, how much can be borrowed, what interest rate will be applied; the threshold for repayments; and many more. Whatever the final design, the reciprocal nature of ICLs (today's borrowers are tomorrow's payers and vice versa) would be explicit. What is less clear is how to introduce a contributory element. One possibility is to assign a risk rating to borrowers, with better risks permitted to borrow more. Given their reliance on reciprocity, the introduction of ICLs would be likely to produce a positive change in the public's attitude toward social welfare.

Whatever method is chosen-and combinations are possible-ensures that social welfare arrangements reward contribution, provide protection to all citizens, promote social cohesion, and encourage positive attitudes toward welfare. Reciprocity is the bedrock of morality and the foundation of strong a society.


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This article was first published on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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