"An active citizen's income would be an important step toward a more dignified social minimum"

Achim Kemmerling
An active citizen's income would be an important step toward a more dignified social minimum

It's a done deal: The Bundestag and Bundesrat have agreed to introduce the so-called ‘citizen's (or basic) income’ to replace current Hartz IV rules as of January 1, 2023. However, this reform was preceded by bitter discussions between the political camps. The opposition parties CDU/CSU had refused to give their approval. Their reason: Work would no longer be worthwhile with the new social minimum. Achim Kemmerling, the holder of the Gerhard Haniel Professorship for Public Policy and International Development at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at the University of Erfurt, believes that this reform does not go far enough. He outlines what would be needed for a genuine, active citizen's income for basic security, and how greater political acceptance for it could be gained...

The discussion about Germany's basic social security system has not yet come to rest. The famous, and perhaps infamous, so-called Hartz reforms of 2000 and 2001 sought to create a breakthrough at the time, with the guiding principle of ‘demand and support’ ("Fordern und Fördern”), which imposed new possibilities of sanctions for ‘non-cooperative’ benefit recipients, but also new forms of support. While the reform certainly meant an improvement for some (e.g. single parents), for many others, especially the long-term unemployed, it was a profound material and psychological blow. For this reason, the unrelenting criticism of Hartz IV – the reform of social and unemployment insurance – and the actual or perceived practice of sanctions is hardly surprising.

The current federal government, therefore, launched a new attempt in the form of the citizen's income to ease sanctions for welfare recipients again. However, even the government's draft was far from what a citizen's income promises to most observers: an unconditional basic income, also called a universal basic income (UBI). Rather, the current reform is mainly about an increase in the benefit level and simplifying the requirements for receiving minimum social benefits. One example is the so-called "Schonvermögen” (the maximum amount of wealth a benefit recipient is allowed to own). Nevertheless, even this easing went too far for the CDU/CSU, whose approval of the law was required in the Bundesrat. The mediation process in the Bundesrat has reversed some of the easings.

The laborious compromise raises a difficult question: How is it possible to reach a political majority for a more ambitious reform of basic social benefits? Studies on the acceptance of the UBI repeatedly show that most people reject precisely unconditionality (e.g., Chrisp and Martinelli in Busemeyer et al. 2022; Schwander and Vlandas 2020). The moral intuition of many people at the center of the political spectrum is more compatible with a performance- or merit-oriented idea of justice. Working, or at least the willingness in principle to take up gainful employment, is a fundamental component of this conception. This is why many voters reject social transfers without this condition. Debates about alleged ‘parasites’ or ‘lazy people’ are further fueled by the media (e.g. Oschmiansky, Schmid and Kull 2001). Interestingly, UBI is advocated mainly by supporters who are ideologically quite far apart from each other: on the one hand by the political left and some Greens, on the other hand by some liberal or even libertarian business leaders. In Germany, for example, the founder of a drugstore chain, Götz Werner, had been a strong advocate of a universal basic income.

However, a fundamental reform needs stable, large majorities - also from the political center. That's why I think a different route to better basic security would be more promising:

Instead of gradually relaxing conditions so that more and more people receive the social minimum more easily, the conditions should be gradually extended to new types of activities.

In general, the concept of work has become increasingly fluid in an age of digitalization and individualization (Busemeyer et al. 2022). Moreover, major crises such as the collapse of the global financial system in 2007/8, a pandemic that has not even subsided, or climate change that is still worsening show that there are many socially valuable activities that are not or not sufficiently remunerated in monetary terms (e.g. Graeber 2018). Therefore, a viable alternative to abolishing conditions would be to extend them to more and more activities. Specifically, this could mean applying social transfer conditions to a broader notion of work: from volunteering in the context of eco-social projects to parenting and caregiving. In part, this is already happening, for example, with pension entitlements, but a reform of basic income support towards an active citizen's income could give this a much-needed additional push.

Such a reform would also have disadvantages: For example, an active basic income would not eliminate welfare state bureaucracy to the same extent as advocates of a basic income have called for. However, such an extreme notion of basic income that would make any other kind of social policy superfluous is unrealistic. Another potential drawback would be a deadweight loss, for example, if employers were to rely more heavily on volunteer labor that effectively becomes tax-subsidized. Such effects would have to be monitored and controlled.

Still, an active citizen's income would be an important step toward better basic social security. It would generate more political support from the middle class because also the middle class knows that valuable work does not always have to mean gainful employment. For progressive leftists or liberals, on the other hand, such an active citizen's income would appear equally appealing as the first step toward a gradual de-conditionalization of social policy. What activities, up to what level, would qualify for easier access to the social minimum under what circumstances? All these details would have to be negotiated politically. But, in my eyes, this is a strength, not a weakness, of an active citizen's income that seeks to generate political acceptance.

For further reading:

  • Busemeyer, Marius, Achim Kemmerling, Paul Marx und Kees van Kerbergen (2022) Digitalization and the Future of the Democratic Welfare State, in dieselben (Hg.) Digitalization and the Welfare State, Oxford et al.: Oxford University Press, 373–393.

  • Chrisp, Joe und Luke Martinelli (2022): The Case for a Basic Income in the Emergent Digitalized Economy, in Busemeyer, Marius, Achim Kemmerling, Paul Marx und Kees van Kerbergen (Hg.) Digitalization and the Welfare State, Oxford et al.: Oxford University Press, 174–191.

  • Graeber, David. 2018. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Simon and Schuster.

  • Oschmiansky, Frank, Silke Kull und Günther Schmid (2001) Faule Arbeitslose? Politische Konjunkturen einer Debatte in WZB Discussion Paper FS I 01–206.

  • Schwander, Hanna and Tim Vlandas (2020): The Left and Universal Basic Income: The role of ideology in individual support, in Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy 36(3): 237–268.

This piece was originally published in German by the research blog "WortMelder" of the University of Erfurt on 28.11.2022.

Prof. Dr. Achim Kemmerling

Prof. Dr. Achim Kemmerling is the Gerhard Haniel Professor for Public Policy and International Development. He is the Coordinator of the research cluster “Development and Socio-Economic Policies“.

Prof. Dr. Achim Kemmerling's University Erfurt Profile

~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~