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Intra-EU Mobility and the Welfare Magnet Hypothesis: Research demystifies arguments on welfare abuse and points towards the key role played by origin countries

by Petra de Jong, Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI)
Source: shutter_m

In recent years, the relationship between welfare systems and intra-EU mobility has increasingly caught the attention of the general public, media outlets, policy makers and researchers. It has been argued that, due to the freedom of movement in the European Union (EU), more generous welfare systems would function as magnets, attracting citizens from countries that offer fewer benefits. This belief has had real impacts: For example, restricting the migration and welfare rights of EU migrants has been one of the highest priorities surrounding the Brexit referendum [1, 2]. Similar calls for policy change can be observed in other western European countries. Terms like ‘welfare abuse’ and ‘benefit tourism’ are regularly used in public and political discourses, and suggest that EU citizens migrate to other EU countries to take advantage of the welfare system [3, 4]. 

In reality, moving for the primary purpose of accessing benefits rather than working and contributing to the host country’s system is quite difficult, even in the absence of border restrictions. In European welfare systems, welfare rights of intra-EU migrants – like those of natives – typically build up over time. In addition, European welfare state arrangements largely target specific life stages. People are generally net receivers of the welfare system while they are in state-financed education, retired or in need of medical care, and net contributors when they are working. Most intra-EU migrants move during life stages when they are the least reliant on welfare state arrangements, and often leave the host country before gaining full access to the welfare system. 

In effect, several studies and reports have shown that EU migrants generally contribute more to the welfare system in the destination country than they receive in benefits [5-9]. Yet what these studies insufficiently acknowledge is that figures on migrants’ welfare uptake tell us little about the role of welfare systems in migration decisions. After all, welfare state arrangements may become important to migrants in case they are exposed to events like unemployment, even when they migrated primarily for work [10]. Thus, empirical evidence on whether EU migrants actually take welfare state arrangements into account when deciding whether and where to move has been much more limited than these studies may suggest. 

In my PhD research, I therefore used a mixed-methods approach to gain a better grasp on how a macro-level factor like the welfare system can influence individual migration decisions. I investigated whether government spending on welfare state arrangements influenced migration decisions by age in 25 European countries. The findings indicate that the generosity of specific welfare provisions may play a role in the locational choices of more vulnerable migrant groups, such as families with children or elderly [11]. However, I found no support for the welfare magnet hypothesis in the specific case of labour migrants. In line with these findings, qualitative interviews illustrated that intra-European migration decisions are typically shaped by the factors that are most relevant to the individual at the time of migration, without looking very far into the future [12]. Furthermore, information on welfare state arrangements is mostly sought once the need for some sort of governmental support arises. As most respondents migrated when they did not need or rely on welfare, these results help explain why they rarely considered the welfare system abroad when deciding to migrate. To summarise, as an individual’s welfare rights and needs vary over the life course, so does the role of welfare provisions in migration decisions. 

What has also been barely considered in previous discussions and studies dealing with the so-called “welfare magnet hypothesis” is the role played by welfare systems in sending countries. In the context of the EU, initial evidence has shown that increasing the levels of welfare benefits in eastern Europe by national governments of these countries is associated with decreasing emigration rates [13]. In my own research, I used an experimental setup to investigate the factors influencing people’s willingness to migrate. Respondents expressed lower migration aspirations when unemployment benefit levels in the country of destination were lower than in the country of origin [14]. These findings suggest that generous welfare provisions in the country of origin can function as a retaining factor prior to migration. In other words, a generous welfare system may act as a kind of risk insurance, which individuals are not ready to give up by migrating to another country with lesser social protection [15]. Thus, whereas the debate on welfare magnets has led to a focus on the destination country, my research illustrates that migration decisions should be understood not just based on the opportunities in the destination country, but also based on the potential losses in the origin country. 

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