Today, states are not the sole providers of social welfare to their citizens. Families access social protections transnationally. Some individuals are extremely well protected while others are left more vulnerable than ever.
Erika is an educated twenty-seven-year-old Swedish woman who works as a project manager for a hi-tech firm in South Korea. Even though she lives far away from home, she does not worry about getting ill or about how she will support herself when she retires. That is because, in addition to the social welfare she is entitled to in Sweden, she also gets generous health insurance, pension contributions, and paid family leave as part of her job in South Korea.
Gimena’s experience stands in stark contrast. She is a woman from Mexico, also twenty-seven, with a sixth-grade education. An undocumented migrant in the United States, she works off-the-books as a health aide at a senior citizens home, for which she receives no health or retirement benefits. She will not become eligible for the minimal health coverage the U.S. offers to undocumented workers until she has been in the country for at least five years. Instead, she relies on friends and family members when she gets sick or money runs short. Things will look brighter when Gimena returns to Mexico. She will be eligible for national health insurance and social security. She has also purchased a bit of insurance of her own by buying a home in her village, where her parents and children now live and where she plans to retire.
Both women protect and provide for themselves across borders. They piece together resources available in their sending and receiving countries to try to get the care and security they need. Erika has more than enough while Gimena’s efforts ensure only a threadbare and unreliable social safety net. One wrong turn, resulting in an accident or getting fired, would send Gimena and her family into desperate straits.
What their examples also make clear is that transformations in social welfare in one part of the world ripple across to others. Gimena works abroad as a care provider and her earnings support her family back home. This means that, while she supports her aging parents and children financially, she cannot take care of them herself. Other family members or hired help must step in. In some countries, the care deficit created when large numbers of traditional caregivers migrate prompts the state to act. So many of Poland’s citizens work as caregivers abroad that its government made a deal with that of the Philippines to bring large numbers of Filipinos to care for Polish senior citizens.
The New Context of Social Protection
These stories speak to a dramatic shift in how and where social welfare is provided in our world on the move. Readers living in the European Union, where transnational social protection programs are among the most highly developed, will be aware of this change. They have a European Health Insurance Card, which means that their treatment will be covered if they get sick in a different member state. They can also bring their pension when they move from job to job across the EU, though this is difficult to put into practice. My colleagues and I heard horror stories about the bureaucratic hurdles it takes to draw on a pension earned in one EU country while living in another.
More and more people live for extended periods outside their country of citizenship without full rights or voice where they reside. An increasing number also live outside their country of citizenship but still participate in some way in its political and economic life. These individuals span the socioeconomic spectrum from poor migrants, like Gimena, who are forced to move because they cannot support their families back home to highly educated professionals, like Erika, who can easily take advantage of opportunities anywhere. Either way, nationally bounded social welfare systems, based on the idea of people living in one place and receiving what they need from one state of which they are citizens, are increasingly out of date.
Instead, an increasing number of people protect themselves and their families transnationally. They harness formal and informal resources across borders to create resource environments that combine support from the state, the market, civil society (including nongovernmental organizations, labor unions, and religious organizations), and their social networks. While some of these forms of support are contractual and therefore reliable, depending upon care from friends or community organizations is unpredictable at best. It is also place-dependent. If a person like Gimena lives in Los Angeles, there will be many immigrant aid organizations around and a strong Latino community she can turn to for help. If she lives in rural Wyoming, she is much more likely to be on her own.
In this context, the social contract between citizen and state is shifting in three important ways.
First, states are shedding some functions and taking on others. They are downsizing as health care and pensions are privatized (think of the disturbing stories we hear about the once-lauded National Health Service in the United Kingdom) but also supersizing by taking on new functions with respect to their citizens living abroad.
Second, citizenship and social rights are increasingly decoupled. In the past, only national citizenship guaranteed access to basic levels of health care and education. Now, as many countries step back from providing social welfare for their citizens, they also offer some protections to non-citizens. Argentina, for example, offers universal access to its public health system to all residents, regardless of citizenship, after six months in the country.
Third, there is a denationalizing of social rights. States do not just protect their citizens living within their territory; they also extend care to those living abroad. Mexico, for example, issues its citizens in the United States a matricula consular, an identity card that helps them get drivers licenses and open bank accounts there without a U.S. social security number. It also offers financial literacy courses and primary health care at its consular offices around the United States on the basis that a well-educated, healthy, and solvent migrant is good for both countries.
The Way Forward
What happened during the global coronavirus pandemic provides clear evidence that nationally based social welfare is out of sync with how people earn their livelihoods and care for their families. Because disease knows no borders, health care should not either. Because jobs cross borders, so must pensions. Even in moments of heightened xenophobia and nationalism, the social welfare of citizens everywhere is deeply interconnected.
As more people face precarious employment, greater economic inequality, and ecological pressures wrought by climate change that force them to move, understanding how families actually protect and provide for themselves is more urgent than ever. How they do so clearly challenges the conventional idea of a static relationship between social protection and place, space, or citizenship.
New ways of formulating policies and implementing them are also urgently needed. Regional institutions, like the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Countries, are a way forward but these vary considerably with respect to the money and resources they have to put into transnational social protection projects. Policymaking on cross-border issues is still seen as something done between two or more sovereign states. Until we break out of that nation-state box and find new ways to cooperate and share resources, the Gimenas of the world will remain vulnerable, lacking basic rights and care.
Crucially, transnational social protection is by no means a panacea. It reshuffles rather than eliminates inequality. Enhanced protection for some results in greater vulnerability for others. What is more, the work done by people like Gimena allow people like Erika to live the protected life they lead. We need to recognize this new reality, bring the way people actually live and the systems meant to protect them back in sync with one another, and to figure out who the new winners and losers are.
The present essay draws on the recently published book Transnational Social Protection, authored by Peggy Levitt, Erica Dobbs, Ken Sun, and Ruxandra Paul (see section Publications, p.. 23)
Peggy Levitt is the Mildred Lane Kemper Chair of Sociology at Wellesley College and a co-founder of the Global (De)Centre. She was a fellow at the IWM in the spring of 2023.