Debates about migration, welfare and citizenship are often framed by questions regarding the exclusion of migrants from the provisions of welfare states. One dimension of those debates concerns the ways in which migrants are excluded from rights to welfare on the basis of the terms and conditions of their legal status as non-citizens. Another dimension concerns the extent to which public support (of citizens) for rights to welfare may be dependent on the exclusion of migrants. While the former addresses the basis for supporting an expansion of universalism, to extend social rights to non-citizens, the latter addresses the basis for restricted universalism, to limit social rights on the grounds that universalism is premised on its exclusivity to citizens within a nation state.

Citizenship is thus both a question of legal status, with respect to the rights and obligations that formal citizenship confers, and a question of normative status, of ideas about who is deserving and undeserving in the provision of welfare. However, debates regarding immigration and welfare have, arguably, been limited by the extent to which they revolve around a binary distinction between citizens and non-citizens. This distinction is partly due to methodological limitations: in the absence of data on immigration status, nationality/foreign nationality is the basis for distinguishing citizens and non-citizens. However, citizens and non-citizens are not unitary groups, legally or normatively. They are divided by class, gender, race/ethnicity, sharing common lines of division which intersect with divisions based on nationality and immigration status. Those divisions underpinned the development of welfare states over the course of the 20th century. As feminist analyses emphasise, social citizenship, with respect to the classic welfare state of the post-war era, was based on the gendered division of paid and unpaid work: citizens (men) were granted rights to social security as paid workers, women were granted rights (that is, to family allowances) as mothers and wives (Lewis, 1992; Williams, 1989). As feminist, along with anti-racist, disabled, lesbian and gay critiques have conveyed, social citizenship was based on a ‘false universalism’ that was both shaped by and implicated in the construction of social divisions and inequalities (Lewis, 2003).

With the restructuring of welfare states, universal rights to welfare have increasingly been replaced with conditional entitlements (Dwyer, 2004). Benefits claimants are not the bearers of rights to welfare, or indeed the active ‘choosers’ of welfare (as they may be conceived of in other areas of re-structured provision, such as healthcare), but the ‘obligated’ who are required to engage in work-related activities as a condition of access to benefits. Analyses of the principles and conditions that underpin access to welfare thus bring to attention the ways in which citizenship is implicated in the stratification of both citizens and non-citizens. Current reforms to the welfare benefits system in the UK reveal parallels with the principle of ‘less eligibility’ of the Poor Law system: the total amount of benefits that a household can claim being capped on the basis that the conditions of benefits claimants should not be more attractive than those of the ‘hard-working’ poor. But they also reveal parallels with immigration policy: the limiting of access to welfare for asylum seekers and other categories of European Economic Area (EEA and non-EEA) migrants likewise entails normative ideas about the ‘undeserving poor’ and ‘welfare dependency’. That is not to say that the principles underpinning conditions of access to welfare are without contradictions across categories of citizens and non-citizens. Lone parents are increasingly required to engage in paid work, including measures to move them from unconditional social assistance (income support) to conditional work-related benefits – underpinned by an ‘adult-worker’ model of welfare. By contrast, (non-EEA) migrant women are granted rights of residence in the UK via family reunion as the dependants of men, as wives, which in turn is the basis of their exclusion from social rights to welfare and their dependence on the male wage – re-instating a ‘male breadwinner’ model of welfare (Lewis, 1992) in the context of immigration policy.

The conditionality of social citizenship thus requires a broadening of the focus of debates on migration and welfare that considers the principles of inclusion/exclusion for different groups, citizens and non-citizens. An historical analysis of the treatment of paupers and criminals, for example, reveals both the ways in which citizens have been excluded from certain legal rights (for example, voting rights), but also the ways in which certain groups are normatively constructed as ‘failed citizens’ or non-citizens in addition to migrants (Anderson, 2013). In the current context, in which the principles associated with state-guaranteed social rights in the provision of welfare have increasingly been replaced by principles of individual responsibility, consumer choice and market competition, it is important to examine the conditionality of social citizenship for citizens and non-citizens alike. This potentially facilitates the basis for making connections between the political activism of different social groups with regard to the curtailment or denial of social rights: the activism of disabled people with regard to current welfare reforms, the activism of low-paid workers with regard to a Living Wage, and the activism of migrant rights campaigners with regard to increasing restrictions on access to permanent residency/citizenship. Those connections might provide the basis for replacing the ‘false universalism’ of social citizenship with a common basis for collective forms of claims-making around social inequalities.


Anderson, B. (2013) Us and Them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dwyer, P. (2004) ‘Creeping Conditionality in the UK: From Welfare Rights to Conditional Entitlements?’, Canadian Journal of Sociology, 29 (2:) 265-287.

Lewis, G. (2003) ‘Difference and Social Policy’, in N. Ellison and C. Pierson (eds.), Developments in British Social Policy, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Lewis, J. (1992) ‘Gender and the Development of Welfare Regimes’, Journal of European Social Policy, 2: 3, 159-173.

Williams, F. (1989) Social Policy: A Critical Introduction. Issues of Race, Gender and Class, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Download PDF