Leiden Law Blog

Two toothbrushes and half freedom

Two toothbrushes and half freedom

A woman and a man (or a man and a man, or a woman and a woman) fall in love. They start spending time together, first one day during the weekend, then several days a week, and soon they are inseparable. She decides to buy an extra toothbrush to join his in his bathroom, hangs several sets of clothes in his closet, and empties one of her drawers for his knickers and socks.

As happy and fortunate as they are in finding each other, as unhappy and unfortunate they are in their work situation: they are both unemployed and receive benefits. Technically, therefore, they shouldn’t only introduce their new lover to family and friends, but also to their case manager at the Department of Social Services. If they don’t, they are committing fraud.

Hide the toothbrush?

When two people share the costs of living they need less money. This is translated into a rule that states that people’s benefits should be adjusted to the costs of a two-person household. That is reasonable. But I wonder, what are the personal consequences of this rule that, if you spend most of your time together, you are considered to be a ‘shared household’?

It’s not difficult to imagine how the obligation to tell social services about a new relationship puts pressure on the relationship. When that second toothbrush comes into the picture, you need to have a conversation with your new lover about money and regulations and possible sanctions. You may disagree about the moment you should tell. ‘Maybe we can hide the toothbrush’, she may propose, ‘or just brush our teeth when we are at home.’ Or maybe he’ll propose spending less time together, just to be on the safe side.

Head in the clouds

Once you are a ‘shared household’ you will have to agree on how to manage money, which is not the most romantic thing to do when you your head is still in the clouds. Moreover, you lose a bit of your independence. We assume that people kiss and don’t tell because they want more money. But is it fraud, when people wish to protect their financial independence?

Having to discuss these things will have you back on your own two feet again very quickly. It strikes me as unfair, that people who need state support are pressured into revealing that they have fallen in love and accepting the financial consequences of that, whereas I, on the other hand, can postpone having difficult conversations about money. Even if I am practically a shared household with someone, year in and year out, I won’t have to reveal personal information for as long as I wish. When I fall in love, I can linger in seventh heaven.

Suffocation

Social security officers do actually count toothbrushes in order to detect possible fraud, so it is no banality. Moreover, this is just one of many rules that restrict the autonomy of people receiving benefits.

It is easy to forget that one of the great achievements of the welfare state is that it has increased people’s personal freedom. Nonetheless, considering the number of rules and the threat of sanctions, I wonder how many people who receive benefits would say that they enjoy personal freedom because of our safety net. Surely, social security means that people who lose their income don’t have to fear hunger and homelessness. But being free of hunger and homelessness is not the same as enjoying personal freedom. Negative freedom is only half freedom.

People are like plants, sociologist and legal scholar Kees Schuyt recently said: if you give them too little water and sunlight (control and cohesion), they won’t flower and will die. If you give them too much, they will suffocate.

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