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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

Individual responsibility and social policy: the case of school allowances and truancy

Bea Cantillon et Wim Van Lancker


In de voorbije decennia jaar vertonen de spanningsvelden tussen degrondslagen van de welvaartsstaat zich in een andere, verscherpte gedaante: waar het sociaal beleid vroeger vooral gestoeld was op herverdelen en beschermen, verwijst het huidige discours steeds meer naar verantwoordelijkheid, verdienste en responsabilisering. Aan de hand van een concrete casus, het Vlaamse disciplinerende beleid rond schooltoelages, tonen we in deze bijdrage dat deze paradigmaverschuiving onvermijdelijk leidt tot een harder sociaal beleid en een strenge vorm van wederkerigheid waar de meest kwetsbaren in onze samenleving niet altijd aan kunnen voldoen. Dit kan een afkalving van de sociale bescherming impliceren en nieuwe vormen van uitsluiting in de hand te werken.

Texte intégral

1In the golden age of the welfare state, the dominant discourse was one of redistribution and the protection of citizens against social risks such as unemployment, illness, disability, rearing children and retirement. However, the then prevailing triumphalism has slowly faded over the past decades. Questions arose on the future of the welfare state, on the rising costs of social protection, on the principle of social insurance in a changing societal context. Parallel with a changing discourse on social welfare, profound changes in social policy took place. Nowadays, one speaks of the ”active welfare state” or the ”social investment state” in which people are to be activated and empowered instead of ”passively” protected. The consequences of this shift have been documented extensively (Cantillon 2011; Vandenbroucke & Vleminckx 2011): minimum benefits in social security and social assistance schemes became less generous and increasingly dependent on activation programmes, the acceptance of ’suitable jobs’ and in some cases even the obligatory acceptance of community services. As such, the ethical justification of redistribution as fairness (Van Parijs 1995) has lost ground against a more stringent interpretation of social protection in which individual responsibility and quid pro quo have become key concepts. In this context, basic income as the ultimate universal guarantee of adequate income protection is nothing more than a distant ideal.

  • 1 We refer the interested reader to Esping-Andersen et al. 1999; Gilbert 2004; and Morel et al. 2009.
  • 2 For instance, Bart Somers (mayor of the city of Mechelen and MP) recently (May 2011) announced the (...)

2In this contribution, we are neither concerned with such historical developments, nor with the underlying ethical shift as such1. Instead we want to discuss the new tensions that are emerging within the foundations of the welfare as a result of these developments: solidarity and reciprocity, universality and selectivity, responsibility and autonomy. In doing so, we will focus on the case of truancy (or absenteeism in schools) which is related to the instrument of social investment par excellence: equal opportunities in education. In Belgium, the former Flemish government introduced the possibility to recuperate (fully or partially) the school allowance (schooltoelage) from parents of persistent truants as a disciplinary measure. This has been fully implemented since 2008. Some are however willing to go even further and propose legislative initiatives to link entitlement to child benefits with school attendance or allow administrative fines for parents of truants2. We will argue that this specific case is symptomatic of the abovementioned paradigm shift in social policy in which the pendulum of responsibility has swung too far.

Equal opportunities amidst new tensions in social policy

3In the classic welfare state, reciprocity stood for the system of social insurance in which there was an equivalence between contributions and benefits. In the social investment state, however, new forms of reciprocity have emerged whereby individual responsibility and merit become the focal points (Vandenbroucke 2011). This is the result of

41) the emergence of new social risks, which are more than the old ones (supra) a result of choice (e.g. divorce versus widowhood);

52) the commitment to equality of opportunities rather than equality of outcomes (e.g. the emphasis on schooling and training which presupposes commitment and hence responsibility from students);

6and 3) the focus on employment as a fast-track to social inclusion (which – again – presupposes a commitment to look for a job and the responsibility to accept employment).

7At this point, a key question emerges: should the government merely aim at provinding equal opportunities to people to live a valuable life. Or should the government also ensure that people achieve socially desirable outcomes? The capability approach, developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, is a useful framework of thought on this matter. The capability approach allows to evaluate the real opportunities one has regarding the life one may lead, incorporating both personal characteristics and the social context (Robeyns 2000). Key to this approach are the concepts of capabilities and functionings. The latter relates to the final achievement, a practical outcome, while the former is the ’ability to achieve’ a certain functioning (Sen 1987: 36). There is a classical example: in order for an able-bodied person and an impaired person to have the same capability to be mobile, the latter will not only need a wheelchair, but also pathways adapted to the use of a wheelchair. In other words, whether impairments result in the same capability to be mobile depends on the personal, social and physical environment. Public policy clearly has an important role to play in enhancing people’s capabilities. Returning to our case, evaluating the capability to be educated allows to shed light on whether the provision of equal opportunities in education suffices as social policy goal, or on whether we should also enforce citizens’ successful participation. And in case of the latter, through which means?

8It is well-known that education is an important determinant of individual fulfilment and opportunities on the labour market and in later life. Yet education is also beneficial for society as a whole in the form of enhanced human capital. In this sense, education is one of the cornerstones of the social investment state. And indeed, since the nineties, Flemish educational policy is strongly characterised by the ideal of equal opportunities. It is aspired for everyone alike (rich and poor, vulnerable and strong, more and less talented) to reap the fruits of qualitative education. To achieve this, (in principle) free elementary and secondary education is provided, and families who cannot afford the additional costs of schooling are entitled to a means-tested school allowance. However, to make this government investment ’profitable’ for both the individual and society, an effort on behalf of the children is expected. The ones waiving this reciprocity, i.e. those who persistently fail to attend class in our case, are disciplined and their families may lose their school allowance (if they are entitled to it).

9The Flemish school allowance is a textbook example of selective social policy: it involves a form of vertical solidarity but it is means-tested. If all conditions are met, the allowance varies according to household income. The allowance is thus by definition targeted at financially vulnerable families. As being said, the provision of school allowances is not only an instrument of targeted solidarity, but also a disciplinary instrument. Parents of students who are either absent (without an authorization) from school for more than 30 half days in two consecutive years or not officially registered for more than 15 consecutive days, have to repay their allowance. Between its implementation in 2008 and 2010, 351 allowances were recovered.3

10Against the background of the aforementioned tensions between the foundations of social policy, we will discuss this disciplinary measure drawing on the concepts of efficiency (consequentialist dimension) and responsibility (ethical dimension). We believe that the case of truancy is ultimately a question of social justice.

The social efficiency of a disciplinary policy measure

11Evaluating the social efficiency of a disciplinary measure from a consequentialist point of view cannot but start with a straightforward question: does it work? Looking at the figures, this doesn’t seem to be the case so far. The annual monitoring reports issued by the Flemish Ministry of Education suggest that ’problematic absenteeism’ in secundary education is on the rise compared to the previous years (Departement Onderwijs en Vorming 2010). As it however may be too premature to empirically assess the genuine effect of this measure, there are three additional reasons to question its efficiency.

12A first issue concerns the time period. The complete package of measures issued by the Flemish government to combat truancy (’Spijbelactieplan) encompasses a bunch of integrative measures (in cooperation with schools, community workers and pupil support centres) to intervene rapidly in the case of problematic absenteeism. This is obviously of uttermost importance. However, the financial disincentive follows with a delay of about two years. The link between cause (truancy) and effect (repaying the school allowance) has dissolved after such long period. Therefore, it has little effect as an instrument to raise awareness among parents. If there is a real problem of truancy, one can safely assume it will be already too late.

  • 4 E.g. for a secondary school student living at home, the amount ranges from €120 to €800.

13A second issue concerns the financial consequences of the measure. These households are financially deprived by definition, which means that repaying such (often substantial) amounts may well reinforce their financially precarious situation.4 Disciplinary policies of this kind thus endorse the unequal income distribution.

14A final issue is that the principle of non-discrimination is violated because only families receiving an allowance are subject to the disciplinary measure. One could at least assume that disciplinary rules apply to everyone: the late ethicist Koen Raes rightly described this as a moral benchmark for a public sense of justice (Raes 2003: 3). As we will see below, there is substantial yet not complete overlap between families entitled to a school allowance and families with truant children. Not everyone is equal when it comes to truancy which can hardly be regarded as fair. Thus arises a somewhat schizophrenic situation in which only the least affluent are punished by revoking an allowance designed to help those families preventing exactly what is being disciplined.

The unbearable complexity of individual responsibility

15The more fundamental, ethical, issue at stake is the concept of merit. If one fails to attend school, isn’t it simply a matter of fairness that one loses one's entitlement to a school allowance? That society, echoing Cicero’s suum cuique tribuere, only has a duty to give to whom it deserves? The crux of this argument boils down to the association of merit and responsibility: who is responsible for the socially aberrant behaviour, and to what extent?

16To fully understand the significance of this issue, one has to go back to the beginning: the coincidence of being born in a disadvantaged or privileged family. Many of the inequalities, disadvantages and wrongdoings we observe in contemporary society find their origins in the accident (or lottery) of birth. Obviously no one can be held responsible for being born. Furthermore, several crucial elements are more or less fixed at birth: not only genetic endowments, cognitive abilities and talents but also parental educational attainment, socio-economic background of the family, the quality of the house in which one lives, the neighbourhood in which one grows up. More than a century of historical, sociological, economic and psychological research has made very clear how determining those contextual factors are in becoming an ’autonomous individual’. Children growing up in precarious neighbourhoods where social problems (unemployment, crime, poverty, .. and truancy) are cumulated (by the way a largely urban phenomenon), begin their adult lives with a disadvantage they are often not able to overcome.

17Now let us turn to the profile of persistent truants in Flanders. Students from non-native descent, students with poorly educated parents and students from families entitled to a school allowance are overrepresented (Departement Onderwijs en Vorming 2010). Moreover, the problems are relatively concentrated in urban areas (Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, and smaller Flemish cities). Obviously, it is not a coincidence that we recognize the same characteristics of vulnerability as outlined above in the profile of truants, and that families entitled to school allowances are overrepresented.

18Given all this, to what extent is individual responsibility a useful concept to support such a disciplinary policy? In this case, the measure is aimed at parents in order to raise their awareness of the importance of education. The parents are thus held responsible for the behaviour of their children. Net of the de jure responsibility parents have for their children, we are concerned with de facto responsibility. We believe that holding parents fully accountable for the absenteeism of their children does not take into account the unbearable complexity of the concept of responsibility: seldom clear-cut, almost always equivocal and ambiguous.

19Consider the following examples. Can we hold the single mother responsible for the regular absenteeism of one of her children when she is time-constrained combining paid employment with the care for all of her children and doing the household? Should we punish the immigrated mother who is unable to untangle Flemish laws on compulsory schooling? And what about the short-term perspective of a sixteen year old preferring quick money in the informal circuit to the longer-term perspective of graduating? What about those who never saw among their peers and kin that education effectively leads to a decent job?

20Such examples, albeit hypothetical, illustrate how hard the task of exactly demarcating responsibility is. Do we blame the parent(s), or the child? Is it a matter of insufficient social protection of vulnerable households, which makes it a collective responsibility? And what about the responsibility of the school and the school system? Research shows that truancy occurs least in schools with a strong commitment to provide support for pupils including a clear focus on their well-being (Claes et al. 2009). Conversely, truancy frequently occurs in school where negative features (such as inadequate infrastructure, shortage of teachers and lack of funding) are cumulated. Again we are confronted with the same difficulty: is it an individual or collective responsibility, or both?

21Every human being wants to ensure his children a good life, but the resources to do so (not only financial, but also including ’knowledge’, ’information’ and ’time’) are not equally distributed. As John Rawls discusses in his Theory of Justice, the outcome of formal equality of opportunities is ”affected by all kinds of social conditions and class attitudes. Even the willingness to make an effort (..) is itself dependent upon happy family and social circumstances” (Rawls 1971: 74). In this context, pointing fingers at the most vulnerable is not fair. We do not state that parents or their children bear absolutely no responsibility in the case of truancy. We however do believe that the concept of individual responsibility is not always strong enough to support disciplinary measures against financially vulnerable families, certainly so in cases where real opportunities are not equally guaranteed.

Some final considerations

22Truancy is a social phenomenon that deserves proper attention. It produces undesirable social consequences such as alcohol and drug abuse, early school dropout, nuisance, delinquency and, hence, damaging outcomes detrimental for future opportunities in life. In fact it is a matter of social justice: truancy affects vulnerable families with a low socio-economic profile, whose children are generally enrolled in educational levels with less favourable labour market perspectives. The same families are entitled to school allowances in the first place. We have argued that the use of financial disincentives as a disciplinary measure – aimed at exactly those vulnerable groups – is neither efficient nor ethically justified. Furthermore, we believe that the case of school allowances has broader implications, in the sense that it is symptomatic for the current discourse on reciprocity and individual responsibility as foundations of the social investment state.

  • 5 See Henley's poem Invictus (1875).

23It seems that our society has freed itself from social class and traditional bonds and transformed into a place where everyone has the opportunity to be, in William Henleys words, the master of his own fate.5 This is what we could call, following Ulrich Beck, the individualisation thesis (Ryckbosch & Van Lancker 2010). However, this thesis does not follow from the facts. Time and again research shows that people are just as determined by their background and origin as they were half a century ago, and – although to a lesser extent - that also holds for new social risks (in which individual choice presumably plays a greater role) (Pintelon et al. 2011). In other words, we observe a discrepancy between the moral and the factual notion of merit and responsibility (Raes 1997). Crucial in this respect is what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error: people tend to overestimate individual explanations and underestimate contextual and situational explanations for the observed behaviour and decisions of others (Ross 1977). In such frame of mind, adverse social behaviour such as truancy is more often ascribed to ones own responsibility and failure. The same reasoning holds for the views people have on redistribution and the welfare state (van Oorschot 2000).

24At this point we return to the crucial issue we discussed at the onset: does the government with its social policy has to go for the provision of real opportunities (capabilities) for people to live a valuable life, or should government also ensure that people achieve socially desirable outcomes (functionings)? When the social policy paradigm grafts on the moral notion of individual responsibility whilst overlooking the factual one, this inevitably leads to tougher policy measures and a more stringent standard of reciprocity, which the most vulnerable will not always be able to meet, despite formal equal opportunities. Because of the enormous gravitational pull of social class, punitive measures to achieve desirable outcomes – justified under the mantra of individual responsibility – should be approached with great circumspection. Disciplinary policy instruments should only be deployed if they stand a good chance of achieving success, in accordance with human dignity, in the service of self-fulfilment and social justice. That is why great modesty is called for in policy design and implementation. Otherwise disciplinary policies risk encouraging new forms of exclusion.



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1 We refer the interested reader to Esping-Andersen et al. 1999; Gilbert 2004; and Morel et al. 2009.

2 For instance, Bart Somers (mayor of the city of Mechelen and MP) recently (May 2011) announced the submission of a bill allowing municipalities to issue administrative fines in cases of persistent truancy.

3 Parl. St. Vl. Parl. 2010-11, nr. 945/1; see

4 E.g. for a secondary school student living at home, the amount ranges from €120 to €800.

See (in Dutch).

5 See Henley's poem Invictus (1875).


Bea Cantillon is Professor of Social Policy and director of the Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy (University of Antwerp, Belgium). She has published extensively and internationally on a wide range of subjects: poverty, social policy, social security, the welfare state and gender. She has acted as a consultant to, among others, the OECD, the European Commission and the Belgian government. Next to being the chair of the National Administration for Family Allowances (ONAFTS), she also served as a Belgian Senator (1995-1999) and was president of the National Reform Commission on the Belgian Social Security for independent workers (2000-2002).

Wim Van Lancker studied Political & Social Sciences (Ghent) and is a doctoral researcher at the H. Deleeck Centre for Social Policy (Antwerp, Belgium). His current research focuses on comparative social policy, with a focus on the impact of family policy on the redistributive capacity of welfare states and female labour market participation. He has published nationally and internationally on basic income, poverty, employment issues, social Europe, and family policy.

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011

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