Finding Social Welfare in a Transnational World

Photo of Erica Dobbs and her book cover

In her teaching and research, Erica Dobbs, assistant professor of politics, explores political representation and social protection. In a new book, Transnational Social Protection: Social Welfare Across National Borders, she and colleagues Peggy Levitt, Ken Chih-Yan Sun and Ruxandra Paul look at how people around the world meet their needs for health care, education and other aspects of the social safety net, often by crossing borders. She shared ideas from the book in a recent interview, edited for clarity and length.

What is the book about?

The motivating question for the book is: in a world on the move, how do people get access to social protection? We usually think about a social safety net as something that people get from their national government or via local networks, but today more than 280 million people live outside of their country of birth. So if you are living abroad and get sick, or your parent needs care, what do you do? What are your options? In the book, we argue that a transnational system of social protection has emerged in parallel to more traditional models. Both policymakers and social scientists should be mindful of this.

What sparked your interest in the topic?

Years ago I worked with a labor union organizing primarily immigrant janitors at a university in Florida. They had some of the lowest wages in American academia, and most did not have access to health care. They went on strike for two months and eventually got a contract. Many of them came from countries where to protest was to risk arrest, and they had never been involved in American politics. I became really interested in the political process—what gets people to mobilize, especially in the most marginalized communities. I also became interested in social protection, as health care coverage was a big issue for many of the workers.

You write about political citizenship and social citizenship. What’s the difference?

When we think about citizenship, we usually think about it in terms of what passport you can carry—in other words, what nation-state you have the right to claim membership in. But when you start to unpack citizenship as a concept, there are multiple layers. T. H. Marshall, a British scholar, famously broke citizenship into three categories of rights: civil, political and social. Civil citizenship is about what we think of as “Bill of Rights” kind of rights—speech, due process and so forth. Political citizenship is about electoral rights—the right to vote or stand for election. Social citizenship covers a right to health care and other forms of social protection—a social safety net.

Traditionally, we’ve thought of these forms of citizenship as bundled: you are a citizen of a country and you have a right to vote there, so you vote yourself a welfare state that is restricted to fellow citizens. But part of what we argue in the book is that this system is unravelling. People may not be a citizen of the country that they are living in, but they still need access to social protection. Conversely, you may be a legal citizen of the country you are living in and still lack political or social rights. The U.S. is a prime example of that.

What are some means immigrants use to access a social safety net?

Migration itself is often a strategy for social protection. For example, one health insurer in California has a cross-border program in which a person’s primary care physician may be in Tijuana even if they work in the U.S., but they can go to an American hospital. On the Texas border, a person can take a day trip across the border for dentistry, which is often not covered by insurance in the U.S.

In less developed countries, we often see situations where there is no social safety net at all, so a member of the family migrates so they can send money back home. Those remittances pay for necessities such as school fees or health care. That can, though, have a downside back home. A woman, for example, may go abroad to work but as a result, she is not available to take care of her elderly relatives. There’s also a tremendous brain drain in some developing countries, driven by demand for social protection in wealthy countries. In the book we argue that a lot of rich countries couldn’t fulfill their social safety net promises to their citizens without immigration. Nurses, for example, are a major export for the Philippines. In the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, a quarter of the doctors are from outside of the UK.

And yet you note that Brexit happened in large part because of anger over immigration.

It’s a bit of a conundrum. Particularly in western Europe, where welfare states are comparatively robust, they couldn’t function without immigrant workers. But rising immigration can help trigger support for far-right populist parties, and a lot of those parties are not very committed to democracy. It’s ironic that part of what drives support for these parties is the collapse of the welfare state. Austerity has weakened the social safety net and people are reacting to that. But you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to promise a welfare state, then you have to level with the population and say that for it to work, you have to bring people in, both to pay taxes to support the system and to deliver care services. Politicians haven’t been willing to do that, and it’s become increasingly dangerous for the long-term stability of what we thought were liberal democracies on a solid footing.

Looking at immigration issues, what major recommendations do you make in the book?

We ask policymakers to keep in mind the realities of our transnational world. You can’t make effective policies unless there is some kind of acknowledgement and agreement about what is really happening. One thing that governments could do to reflect our transnational reality would be to make social benefits more portable across international borders. The EU does this to some extent, so we know it’s not impossible. Another thing that we think politicians need to do is to be more responsible about how they talk about immigration, considering how important it is for their economies and social welfare systems. Finally, we feel quite strongly that human dignity needs to be central to how we think about these things.