Why Mobility Matters to Social Policy

by Cecilia Bruzelius and Isabel Shutes

Over the recent years, there has been growing attention to cross-national migration in social policy research. Yet migration is often seen as external to the development of welfare systems. Moreover, the relationship between mobility and social policy at different scales has been largely overlooked, despite the salience of mobility and immobility to inequalities and social (dis)advantage. We, therefore, propose a mobility perspective that adds value in terms of reflexivity by framing im/mobility as integral to the social relations of welfare.

Over recent years, the relationship between migration, migrants and the welfare state has received increasing attention from researchers (e.g., Freeman and Miriliovic, 2016; Sainsbury, 2012). This research has been marked by a more general tendency to define and analyze the welfare state and its subjects through a lens that replicates the boundary of the nation-state.

The nation-state bounded perspective often results in an uncritical distinction between the foreign-born or non-citizen (the ‘migrant’), for whom mobility is assumed to be a key determinant of exclusion and inclusion, versus sedentary citizens for whom mobility, or the absence thereof, seemingly plays no significant role.

New perspectives, such as transnational ones, have begun to address the limitations of a national frame to better understand the relationship between migration and social protection (Faist et al., 2015; Levitt et al., 2017). However, attention to mobility and social policy at different scales and sites has so far been limited. In a recent article in Global Social Policy, we propose an alternative mobility perspective and set out what it can contribute to social policy research.

Why Apply a Mobility Perspective in Social Policy?

The concept of mobility sees movement as integral to human life. It draws attention not only to different types of movement, but how mobility and immobility translate into social differentiation and (dis)advantage. The main value of a mobility perspective for social policy is in our view three-fold.

First, a mobility perspective can help us move beyond a focus solely on cross-national migration to address other sites and scales of mobility relevant to social policy. Though such a perspective will often reveal processes that can be called ‘internal migration,’ a mobility frame helps avoid conceptualizing mobility exclusively in relation to the national border.

Sites of mobility encompass resources and relationships that are crucial to social welfare. People may move for work or to access schools. Conversely, their movement may be restricted by the affordability of housing, or by a lack of care provision.

Scales refer to geographical localities at/between which mobility takes place, for instance within a neighborhood, between municipalities or regions within and across countries. People may move locally or across national borders to work, access healthcare, or both, for instance.

Second, by taking a relational approach – one that engages with the relationship between mobility and immobility – we address how im/mobility may be advantageous or disadvantageous, and how the movement of some can depend on the mobility or immobility of others.

Third, attention to different sites of mobility highlights how boundaries are constructed and how they demarcate movement in relation to welfare. It lends a lens for examining the construction of different types of movement, and the meanings given to those movements and different ‘mobile subjects,’ and so illuminates the power relations bound up in the practice of mobility.

Im/mobility and social provision

To illustrate the advantages of a mobility lens, we consider in our article how state provision of benefits and services, namely social provision, shapes im/mobility in restricting, enforcing, facilitating or promoting the movement of people. However, a mobility lens can and should also be applied to other dimensions of welfare systems, which are never the sole domain of the state but rather entail relationships across the spheres of family, community, civil society, market and state.

To begin with, the criteria for entitlement to social provision can restrict mobility. National immigration policies clearly structure the rights and entitlements of people to social provision. But access is also determined by other criteria that apply to all welfare subjects. One such criterion is local residence for access to locally provided services such as housing, schools, and long-term care. Meeting that criterion effectively restricts mobility to maintain entitlement. It can also encourage mobility, for example, moving to access services such as schools in a given area.

Entitlement conditions can also enforce mobility. This is the case in labor market activation programs and workfare policies that pressure program participants to be spatially mobile: unemployment benefits are often conditional upon the readiness to take up work that requires long-distance commuting. Research reveals how job-seekers can be stigmatized as the immobile unemployed, who must be conditioned to move to seek or take up work (Marston et al., 2019).

Social policies can directly facilitate and promote mobility beyond entitlement criteria.  Housing mobility programs, for example, promote the mobility of low-income groups to housing and neighborhoods of their ‘choice’ via subsidized access to the private rental market and access to areas with greater opportunities for upwards social mobility. Rent caps and limits to rent increases can similarly enable people to be immobile, as far as residence goes, and stay in areas in which they have access to resources, such as family and community networks.

Social policies can also directly promote international mobility, such as the use of tax benefits and other social benefits to attract the highly skilled or to encourage their return. Such incentive schemes may or may not distinguish between citizens and non-citizens, but typically target only the most desired workers. The international mobility of lower-skilled/lower-paid workers may also be promoted via social protection coverage for mobile workers and ‘immobile’ family members in countries of origin, including where remittances serve as a core dimension of household and national resources.

Mobility matters to the study and practice of social policy. A mobility perspective adds value in terms of reflexivity by interrogating how im/mobility is shaped by and shapes systems of social provision. It frames mobility not as external to a national-bounded welfare state but as integral to the social relations of welfare. And, crucially, it requires us to consider how social policies, alongside immigration policies, can reduce or reinforce the unequal relations of im/mobility.

This blog series is a collaboration between the IMISCOE Standing Committee ‘Reflexivities in Migration Studies’ and the nccr – on the move.

Cecilia Bruzelius is a Junior Professor of European Public Policy in the Institute of Political Science at the University of Tübingen. Her research focuses on the intersections of migration and social policy, and EU citizenship and free movement.

Isabel Shutes is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research examines the intersections of migration and social policies, and inequalities relating to citizenship and migration.


– Faist, T., Bilecen, B., Barglowski, K., Sienkiewicz, J. (2015), ‘Transnational Social Protection: Migrants’ Strategies and Patterns of Inequalities’, Population, Space and Place, 21(3), 193–202.
– Freeman, G. P., Mirilovic, N. (eds) (2016), Handbook on Migration and Social Policy, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
– Levitt, P., Viterna, J., Mueller, A., Lloyd, C. (2017), ‘Transnational social protection: setting the agenda’, Oxford Development Studies, 45(1), 2-19.
– Marston, G., Zhang, J., Peterie, M., Ramia, G., Patulny, R., Cooke, E. (2019), ‘To move or not to move: mobility decision-making in the context of welfare conditionality and paid employment’, Mobilities, 14(5), 596-611.

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