Familism & Denied Welfare Citizenship: The Case of French Social Assistance for Disabled People

Image by Timothé Bultingaire
Image by Timothé Bultingaire

Timothé BULTINGAIRE, student in Political Science at Sciences Po Paris & exchange student at Tampere University.

Feminist work has greatly improved the study of the family role in social protection mechanisms and in fields more diverse than only the study of gender inequalities: this is the case, for example, of French social assistance to disabled people.

Esping-Andersen’s work has revolutionised the way we understand the relationship between the state and the market with his concept of decommodification, or in other words, the ability of the Welfare State to maintain a socially acceptable standard of living for individuals, independent of their market participation. But he has failed to study the role of family in the mechanisms of social protection. (Orloff, 1993) Feminist scholarship then moved beyond Esping-Andersen’s androcentric view by theorising the concept of (de)familiarization: The Welfare State ability to maintain a socially acceptable standard of living for women, independent of their family or marital status (Lewis, 1992). In the case of France, this analysis shows that the Welfare State was historically built around the family unit and the male breadwinner model (e.g., taxes paid per household, tax benefits for married couples, strong derived social rights, ect) (Perivier, 2013). (De)familiarization theory has also been applied to other fields of study, such as Tom Chevalier’s analysis of social policy for youth. He considers, for example, that in France the social citizenship of young people is denied because of the exclusion of young people from social assistance and the taking into account of parents’ income in the calculation of student grants. (Chevalier, 2016) In the logic of the French social system, social benefits are not supposed to replace the family’s aid, just to complement it.

This phenomenon of denied welfare citizenship can also be observed in the case of French social assistance for disabled people. Disabled people present indeed many economic vulnerabilities: their labour market participation is low compared to people without disabilities – 44% versus 72% in the total working-age population – and their unemployment rate is twice as high as that of the general population – 16% versus 8% (Insee, 2020). These weaknesses in terms of employment largely explains the high poverty rate of disabled people (25%), which is 11 percentage points higher than for the general population (Dress, 2020). To remedy this situation, there is a social assistance mechanism, l’Aide Adulte Handicapé (AAH), in the form of a basic income for people with disabilities over the age of 20 with no or low work-related financial resources.

However, this social scheme has many weaknesses. First of all, the maximum amount is very low: 903.6€ per month, below the poverty line, which in France was set at 1041€ per month in 2017 for a single person. Secondly, the AAH is very restrictive because it takes into account the spouse’s income. For example, in the case of a couple without children, if their common income exceeds 1635.5€ per month, which is 100€ below the 2017 median income, the disabled person does not have access to the social assistance for disabled adult, even if it is his or her only source of income (Insee, 2020).

Last but not least, the way this social assistance is calculated contributes to the increased economic dependence of disabled people on the family.

A disabled person with no or low income from work, would find himself or herself totally economically dependent on his or her spouse if s/he cannot access social assistance. Furthermore, the risk of loss of autonomy is even greater for women with disabilities: 45% of respondents to a survey by the association “APF France handicap” see the amount of their social assistance impacted by their spouse’s income.  They are initially even more economically vulnerable by being more affected by part-time work: 47% of employed women with disabilities work part time compared to 16% of employed men with disabilities (Défenseur des Droits, 2016). These situations of economic dependence can lead to domestic and sexual violence to which women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable.

For these reasons and with the aim of autonomy and a more effective fight against poverty, associations of disabled people have supported a petition to the French parliament claiming the individualization of the AAH calculation. The required 100,000 signatures were obtained in early February 2021. Nevertheless, the French Secretary of State in charge of disability issues has repeatedly opposed the individualisation of social assistance for disabled adults on the grounds that “national solidarity complements family solidarity, it should not replace it” (translation from French by author: “La solidarité nationale complète la solidarité familiale, elle ne doit pas s’y substituer“, Seuret, 2019).

This role given to the family leads us back to the familialist feature of the French Welfare State: l’Aide Adulte Handicapé is highly familiarized with the taking into account of the spouse’s income and are not supposed to replace the family’s aid: the family is considered to be the basic entity of solidarity. As for women or young people, the French welfare state fails to secure disabled people, independent of their family status and considers them as children. The welfare citizenship for people with disabilities is thus denied.


Chevalier, Tom (2016) “Varieties of youth welfare citizenship. Towards a two-dimension typology”, Journal of European Social Policy, 26 (1): 3-19.

Défenseur des droits (2016) L’emploi des femmes en situation de handicap. Analyse exploratoire sur les discriminations multiples, Paris.

Drees (2020) L’aide et l’action sociales en France – Perte d’autonomie, handicap, protection de l’enfance et insertion, Panoramas de la DREES.

Insee, Dares (2020) ‘’Travail, santé et handicap’’, Emploi, chômage, revenus du travail, Insee Références.

Insee (2020) ‘’Niveau de vie – Pauvreté’’, Tableaux de l’économie française, Insee Références.

Lewis, Jane (1992) “Gender and the Development of Welfare Regimes”, Journal of European Social Policy, 2 (3): 159-173.

Orloff, Anne Shola (1993) “Gender and the Social Rights of Citizenship: The Comparative Analysis of Gender Relations and Welfare States”, American Sociological Review, 58 (3): 303–328.

Perivier, Hélène (2013) “De madame Au-Foyer à madame Gagne-Miettes. Etat social en mutation dans une perspective franco-état-unienne“, Margaret Maruani (ed.), Travail et genre dans le monde. L’état des savoirs, Paris: La Découverte: 309-317.

Seuret, Franck (February 9, 2019) ‘’Grand débat et handicap : Sophie Cluzel dit non à tout’’, Faire face. Mieux vivre le handicap.

Illustration by Timothé Bultingaire