Nicolas Duvoux, sociologist at the University of Paris, centred on the issue of ‘the welfare-dependent' in his book (left) L'Autonomie des assistés (‘The autonomy of the assisted'). He uses the term to challenge conventional wisdom which holds that welfare beneficiaries wallow in poverty, apathy and idleness. Duvoux believes that the welfare-dependent, the so-called ‘assisted', "are those who are poor, who need to be helped".
According to French national statistics institute INSEE, eight million people in France live in poverty with an income of less than 880 euros per month. But for many French people, the word ‘assisted' is of course derogatory. "The term conjures up people who are dependent on the state, as if the social safety net were a cover for moral decay," explained Duvoux. It also conjures up a series of stereotypes: poor people (like the gypsy travellers) who drive expensive BMW cars (a notion encouraged by President Sarkozy, as reported here) , or of days spent playing computer games rather than seeking work, of so-called ‘zip-opener benefits' (allocations-braguette) based on the theory that the poor, often foreigners, have childrenin order to benefit from family allowances.
"These representations appeared in the late 1970s in the United States," said Hélène Périvier, an economist at left-leaning economic think-tank OFCE. "Republican Ronald Reagan [US president 1981-1989] peppered his speeches on social issues with references to the ‘welfare queen'".
The ‘queen' was supposedly a destitute woman in a Chicago ghetto who allegedly drove a Cadillac, loved champagne and is said to have defrauded $150,000 from various welfare offices by inventing 80 names, 30 addresses and four dead husbands. In fact, this person never existed, as proven by US journalist David Zucchino in his book, Myth of the Welfare Queen (pictured right).
In the collective sub-conscious of White America, the ‘welfare queen' is often Black. "Welfare programmes are designed to help the poorest and the poorest are generally dominated populations - women or ethnic minorities," said Périvier of the OFCE.
The stereotype of the idle and fraudulent poor has flourished in Europe also, where, since the mid-1990s, it has been used by numerous politicians, both on the right and the left.
"Mentioning the ‘assisted' in political debate is to make use of a coded language," explained sociologist Nicolas Duvoux. "The term often evokes, without need to name them, foreigners," he said. Indeed, French presidential advisor Patrick Buisson puts the fight against welfare dependency on the same level as questions of immigration or national identity.
However, those that rail against the welfare dependent are hardly all racists. "More and more people, especially from the lower middle class, as well as young people, feel cheated out of the [welfare] solidarity system," explained Danièle Karniewicz, the chair of the French national Pension Fund. This, according to sociologist Olivier Schwartz, especially affects a whole swathe of the French lower middle class engulfed by the "growth of social disadvantage". These include workers earning the minimum wage or just above, the young, or those with eroding low-revenues, who have the feeling they are paying for everybody, for the rich but also for the more disadvantaged who benefit from welfare payments.
Nicolas Duvoux argues in his book that beneficiaries of the RSA refuse the term welfare for themselves but will use it without compunction to describe others.