The Domesticization of Income Support. the Case of the Italian Pre-Paid Electronic Social Card
The NSC is not a cash benefit like other minimum income schemes, but a pre-paid electronic card that works on the MasterCard circuit and allows recipients to make purchases in a limited number of affiliated stores. They can buy medications as well as a range of food products and pay their utility bills. Furthermore, as the new measure provides a mix of cash benefits and access to social and employment services, combining passive and active measures, some beneficiaries have to attend a financial literacy course organized by third sector associations operating at the local level. In brief, the NSC enacts a social inclusion measure with electronic cash transfers and financial literacy courses.
The aim of this article is to investigate how the electronic cash transfer provided by NSC is used by the families involved in this policy experiment, also in relation to the educational programme. Our main focus is on the family level; in particular, we will examine the beneficiaries’ knowledge and ability to manage this particular type of virtual money, both technically and cognitively. The families have to activate the card through an on-line procedure, in order to use it in stores, and they must keep checking their residual credit. Moreover, they have to use this virtual money in a way that is coherent with the policy goals, otherwise the NSC fails to work properly: for instance, they cannot earmark (Zelizer 1994) the virtual money as savings, because it cannot be withdrawn and must be used up completely within a given time. How the NSC is entangled in and re-shapes the domestic practices in the household finances? What is the role of the technical and informational infrastructure in this process? In the financial literacy courses, the beneficiaries interact with the operators introduced as experts, and, in using the electronic transfer of money, they are indirectly driven to consume where and how is technically permitted by the social card. How these two dimensions are assembled and perceived by the households?
The analysis of individual cases helps reveal how different features, both social and economic, contribute to creating a way to manage the household budget besides the financial literacy. The awareness of social complexity is a crucial point in order to study how households with no financial assets manage their money, taking into account new factors, above all the existence of different ways to make calculations, think about the future, and plan expenses (Perrin Heredia 2009). In other words, different types of economic reasoning exist and they can come into conflict with a technical device like the NSC, in particular with respect to electronic money and mandatory financial courses.
The article is part of an ongoing research project on the implementation of the NSC measure in Turin. The material used for this paper was collected by taking part in seven financial literacy courses and by interviewing a number of participating families. Each financial literacy course – three to four meetings lasting 2-3 hours each – has 16 to 20 participants, for a total amount of about 110 people. The courses are organized so as to facilitate interaction and sharing of experiences and information among the participants about how they manage financial resources. This constitutes the basis for further in-depth conversations, in which the families speak about the NSC use and meaning, but also about their domestic financial practices, their financial history and eventually the experiences of indebtedness and over-indebtedness that contributed to create their current financial situation.