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From Welfare Fraud to Welfare as Fraud

Vesna Leskošek

The title of this text refers to an article by Dorothy E. Chunn and Shelly A. M. Gavigan (2004) about welfare fraud and the criminalization of the poor. Welfare fraud is an increasingly important issue in political discourses, its use as a term suggesting changes in how the welfare state in Europe is understood and implemented. This chapter explores the consequences of focusing social policy on frauds and fraudsters, which, on the one hand, leads to the curbing of social rights and, on the other, perhaps paradoxically increases poverty even in traditional welfare states such as Finland and Sweden. The American-style discourse on the welfare state and social assistance recipients was imported into Europe simultaneously with the introduction of the neoliberal economic paradigm, which presupposes a free market and a lean state, with the latter becoming ever more punitive and ever less welfare oriented. The core principles of neoliberalism are 'less state, more market, more individual responsibility', and in relation to the reorganization of social services those principles are translated into demands for deregulation, privatization and flexibilization (Weber 2001, in Lorenz 2005, 93).

The case of Slovenia will be used to show how the welfare state has been turned into a punitive state. The recent curbing of the level and scope of social rights in Slovenia is indicative of the trend to apply the neoliberal paradigm to the welfare state. However, the current situation of the welfare state in Slovenia as well as elsewhere is inevitably a result of historical developments, and so are fraud-focused welfare policies, too. To facilitate the understating of recent developments, I (implicitly) use Foucault's 'history of the present' approach (Satka and Skehill 2012). This chapter therefore begins with a short introduction to the problem seen as a global phenomenon. Second, a brief history of the development of the welfare concept according to the pro et contra welfare state arguments are discussed. Finally, the case of Slovenia is introduced.

The Scope of the Problem

The persecution of welfare cheats (also called fraudsters or welfare thieves) has a long tradition in the United States, where every single state has a department for reporting suspected abuse. California, for example, has published detailed guidelines including names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses where one can denounce an acquaintance, neighbour or anyone who in someone's opinion cheats
the system by obtaining 'social aid, food stamps or child care benefits' on the basis of concealed or false information (California Government Department of Social Services: Welfare fraud).1 The website dedicated to abuse reports publishes the names of people who were sentenced to prison, some of them for up to one year, for concealing information and unjustifiably obtaining social aid. The persecution of welfare frauds has become a serious business, leading to the emergence of various councils and private companies offering fraud uncovering services. The idea of denouncing individuals who are believed to abuse the system of social assistance has been recently embraced outside the US as well. Hot lines for fraud reporting have been set up in Ireland, where the number of reported welfare frauds has increased from 600 in 2006 to over 16,000 in 2011.2 This rise should be ascribed primarily to the increased suspicion toward cash assistance recipients, so people are more ready to denounce their acquaintances, neighbours, friends or enemies.

The new government in Great Britain declared a real war on fraudsters. It has established surveillance teams that investigate frauds reported by the police, job centres or anonymous members of public. The website where a fraud can be reported is revealing of how frauds are understood today. For example, one can find there a picture of a middle-aged, stout woman wearing a guilty look. Rather than warning against fraud, the photo points to a typical fraudster. The woman holds a white paper in her hands reading 'Criminal record'. The motto of the campaign is 'It's not if we catch you, it's when!'3

Benefit fraud investigators (also called anti-fraud officers) use detective methods to uncover these enemies of the state, which is what welfare recipients are turned into through such an approach. The investigators follow them, use hidden cameras to record their arrivals and departures, and spy on them from their cars, sometimes waiting for several days and nights for a suspect to appear. One person may be pursued by as many as four surveillance officers and surveillance may last as long as one year, meaning that the expenses thus incurred are definitely higher than the amount of cash benefits received by the person in question. In addition, the government offers a reward to people who denounce a presumed fraudster.4 Fraud data show that in 2011, only 0.8 per cent of benefit recipients in Great Britain committed frauds, which is a negligible financial loss.5 At approximately 2 per cent, the percentage of frauds in Ireland is not much higher. Data show that only one percent of anonymous reports are justified,6 while others contain insufficient information, or slanders, or were meant to harm a recipient of cash benefits.




4 Amelia Gentleman. Benefit fraud: spies in the welfare war. Guardian, 1. Feb. 2011. Accessible at:


6 Social Justice Ireland:; Tackling Social Welfare Fraud: Cheating and frauds related to cash benefits are part of the rhetoric of politicians, ministers and heads of government all across Europe, and even traditional welfare states such as Sweden (Lundström 2011; Jesilow 2012) and France (Murard 2002) are not immune to it. Fraud rhetoric is popular both in Eastern and in Western Europe, in new welfare states and old ones. The idea about a parasite welfare recipient has been spreading rapidly from the US to Europe, erasing traditional differences between the American and European idea of the welfare state. Slovenia is not an exception in this respect, but rather the opposite. During the term in office of the social democratic government (2008–2011), discourse on fraud was turned into a policy. Since the mid-1990s there have been random fraud discourses in Slovenia. Several ministers of social affairs have argued that the frauds in social protection field are a problem that should be tackled, but their statements were not matched by practical measures until now.

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