Published on People Move

Transnational Social Protection: Changing Social Welfare in a World on the Move

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Erica is an educated, thirty-year old Swedish woman who works for a hi-tech firm in South Korea. Even though she lives far away from Sweden, she worries little about getting ill or how she’ll support herself when she retires. That’s because in addition to the social welfare protections she is entitled to as a Swede, she also receives health insurance, a pension, and paid sick leave from her workplace.  

Gimena’s experience stands in stark contrast. An undocumented woman from Mexico who left school after the sixth grade, she works off the books as a health aide at a senior citizens home in Los Angeles, USA—a job which comes with no health or retirement benefits. Her family in Mexico relies on the remittances she sends to meet their social protection needs. 

The Problem 

These stories speak to a dramatic shift in how and where social welfare is provided in our current world on the move. Nationally-based social welfare systems are increasingly out-of-date. Instead, increasing numbers live for long periods outside their countries of citizenship without full rights or voice as long-term residents without membership. More people also live as long-term members without residence, residing outside their native country while still participating in its political and economic life. They protect themselves and their families transnationally—creating resource environments from what they can access from the state, the market, civil society, and their social networks. While some of these protections are reliable, depending upon care from friends or community organizations is unpredictable at best. It is also place-dependent. In Los Angeles, there are many immigrant aid organizations Gimena can rely on but if she lived in Wyoming, where there are few such groups, she would be much more at risk.  Erica gets all the care she needs, while Gimena’s social safety net is thread-bare at best. 

Another striking development is that transformations in social welfare in one part of the world ripple across to others. By migrating, Gimena can pay for care for her parents and children, but she cannot care for them herself. In some cases, the care deficit, created when so many workers migrate, forces the state to step in. When thousands of Polish caregivers went abroad, the government recruited Filipinos to care for its senior citizens. 

The Consequences

These shifts transform the social contract between citizen and state in three important ways. The first is that states shed some functions and take on others. They are downsizing, as health care and pensions are privatized, but also supersizing by assuming additional responsibilities for their citizens abroad. The second is that citizenship and social rights are decoupled. National citizenship used to be a prerequisite for access to health care and education, but now some states offer basic protections to non-citizens. For example, if you live in Argentina for 6 months, for example, you are eligible for public health services. Finally, there is a denationalizing of social rights. States don’t only protect citizens living within their borders. They also care for emigrants living outside them. Mexico issues a matricula consular to help emigrants in the US get drivers licenses and open bank accounts without social security numbers.  

Moving Forward

The global pandemic offers compelling evidence that nationally-based social welfare systems do not adequately respond to the way large numbers live and work today. Even in xenophobic and nationalistic moments, the welfare of citizens everywhere is deeply interconnected. Because diseases cross borders, so must health care. Because livelihoods cross borders, so must pensions. 

New ways of formulating policies and implementing them are urgently needed. Regional institutions, like the European Union, are a way forward. However, their efforts vary considerably with respect to how much money and resources they put into transnational social protection projects. Policy-making is still seen as something between two or more sovereign states. Until we break out of that nation-state box, the Gimenas of the world will remain at risk. 

Transnational social protection is, by no means, a panacea. Inequality is re-shuffled, not eliminated. Enhanced protections for some result in greater vulnerability for others. After all, the work done by people like Gimena allow people like Erica to live the protected life they lead. We need to recognize this new reality, bring back in sync the way people actually live and the systems meant to protect them, and make sure that people everywhere receive the basic protections they deserve. 

This blog draws upon the authors' latest book, Transnational Social Protection: Social Welfare Across National Borders, published by Oxford University Press in 2023.


Peggy Levitt

Mildred Lane Kemper Chair of the Sociology and Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department, Wellesley College 

Erica Dobbs

Assistant Professor of Political Science, Pomona College.

Ken Sun

Associate Professor of Sociology, Villanova University

Ruxandra Paul

Assistant Professor of Politics, Amherst College

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