Geography of Welfare State Research Paper

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The term ‘welfare state’ describes the state institutions and policies that are devoted to the delivery of human and social services, poverty amelioration, and enhancement of human well-being. In general, the welfare state is intended to ensure that the basic needs of the population are met with regard to food, housing, education, income, and health. The provision of social welfare serves two interrelated purposes. The first is to provide a social safety net through which citizens of a country should not drop. This role reflects a belief in the social rights of the citizenry and the responsibility of the society to each of its members. The second purpose of the welfare state is to provide a labor force with the skills, human capital, and basic well-being necessary to make it economically productive. The bundle of services provided through the welfare state, the means of provision, and the outcomes or effects of provision are not fixed. Rather, the welfare state is temporally and geographically variable. This variability reflects the interaction between changing ideas about human well-being, how best to attain it, and the specific conditions, practices, and resources that are available for meeting well-being in different places. This variability forces us to consider the geography of the welfare state and, specifically, two critical questions: (a) what are the processes by which unevenness in welfare provision is created? And (b) at what scale are welfare services provided?

These issues are considered under the following headings. Section 1 provides a basic characterization of the forms and functions of the welfare state. Section 2 considers reasons for this variation, including differences in the ability to provide social and human services, differences in the ways that states conceptualize their social role with regard to the well-being of the people who live within their territories, and the role of international organizations. The final section anticipates future changes in the welfare state in both developed and developing countries.

1. Forms And Functions Of The Welfare State

The term ‘the welfare state’ is really a misnomer, as welfare states may take a variety of forms, and these forms have important implications for the citizens, communities, and economies of countries. Among the many typologies developed to characterize the forms of welfare states, those of Gøsta Esping-Andersen (1990) and Diane Sainsbury (1996) describe the framework of welfare provision within a country.

1.1 Typologies Of The Welfare State

Esping-Anderson focuses on the ways in which ideas and beliefs regarding welfare and the state’s role in meeting economic needs have shaped the form of welfare provision. He identifies three basic ‘welfare state regimes’:

Liberal welfare states respond to market and labor force imperatives. Many benefits, such as health insurance and pensions, are linked with employment. Means testing is used to determine eligibility for state services, and relatively modest cash and voucher benefits are provided for those deemed eligible.

Conservative corporatist welfare states rely on state provision of services, rather than on market or private provision. These states often manifest normative ideals of a nuclear family characterized by a male breadwinner and a woman who tends to the family.

Social democratic welfare states promote a vision of the state as the guarantor of social rights. These states promote equality of benefits at high levels as a way of minimizing the effects of social class and income. Welfare benefits are used to equalize the ability of all citizens, regardless of income, to participate in the political community.

This study was based on 18 countries characterized by advanced market economies in the 1980s. As such, it reflects a tendency in the literature to conceptualize welfare states as being limited to industrialized democracies, rather than to consider the welfare apparatus in all countries. It is unclear, then, whether this typology will hold for countries at different stages of development or undergoing transition to market economies. This typology also assumes countries develop their welfare apparatus in response to national political cultures, ideologies, and internal political pressures. The experience of countries beyond the 18 studied is clearly at odds with that assumption, as the development of their welfare policies and institutions is shaped by external influences from international aid and lending organizations and by a globalized economy dominated by transnational corporations. As such, the typology developed by Esping-Anderson may not fully describe the geography of the welfare state.

Sainsbury’s study is significant in helping to understand the differential impacts of the welfare state on citizens and in understanding the ways in which gender ideologies shape the structure of social provision. As noted by Esping-Andersen, some welfare state regimes are based on normative ideals of family and gender roles. Sainsbury’s framework clarifies the bases of entitlement to welfare provision under different regimes, drawing on her characterization of gender ideologies within countries. From this starting point, she traces the effects of welfare regimes on gender relations and the gendered division of labor in the family and society. As with Esping-Andersen, Sainsbury’s research is based on developed, Western countries. Sonia Alvarez (1998) extends this approach in her analysis of gender policies in Latin American countries. Both studies demonstrate that the effects of gender equality reforms in welfare policy vary widely from country to country based on the ways that gender ideologies are embedded in their political economies, creating a differentiated geography of welfare provision and well-being.

1.2 Decisions About Welfare Provision

The welfare state can be conceptualized as a framework that guides three types of decisions with respect to welfare provision: decisions about services to be provided, institutional arrangements for provision, and the scale of provision and decision-making.

Decisions about the services to be provided and the conditions under which they are provided are the basis of Esping-Andersen’s typology. The differences between these regime types center on three questions: (a) whether welfare is primarily a matter of private provision through employment or is a universal right; (b) what constitutes ‘basic needs’; and (c) the extent to which welfare services are used to redistribute income and equalize the material bases of quality of life for all citizens. To these questions, geographers add a fourth: at what scales will decisions about welfare be made and services provided?

Liberal welfare regimes, such as that in the United States, place employment at the center of needs provision. Minimum wage provisions are intended to ensure workers’ ability to pay for housing, food, clothing, and transportation. Pensions and health care are typically provided through a mix of employer and employee contributions. Eligibility for other services is often linked to employment, job training, or the search for employment. For example, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWOR) is the 1996 legislation that restructured welfare provision in the United States. PRWOR links public assistance to participation in programs to make recipients more employable. Education is central to this model, and is notable for being the sole welfare service for which universal access is guaranteed; indeed, many liberal welfare regimes do not characterize education as a welfare service. While some degree of redistribution of wealth may occur through welfare provision in liberal regimes, the redistribution is minimal. Welfare services are only intended to meet basic needs and provide recipients the opportunity to enter the labor force. The slogan ‘welfare as a hand up, not a hand out’ is characteristic of this approach. By contrast, conservative and social democratic regimes rely more directly on state provision of services, and so are characterized by a large social sector for health, housing, pensions, and income support, regardless of employment status. As noted previously, what differentiates these two regime types is that conservative regimes such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and France place more emphasis on the nuclear family and on gender ideologies that reinforce women’s labor force position in contingent and low wage jobs. In addition, the conservative emphasis in welfare provision is on guaranteeing basic needs, although a considerably broader spectrum of services is typically considered ‘basic’ as compared with liberal regimes. Social democratic regimes, such as those in Norway and Sweden, tend to have a larger redistributive goal than the other two regimes. As such, they strive toward universal provision at very high levels and across a much wider variety of services.

The institutional arrangements for welfare provision are implied in Esping-Andersen’s typology, but these arrangements require additional attention. They are the subjects of growing political debate across most welfare regimes, and they reflect fundamental beliefs as to the appropriate relationships between the state, market, and civil society. In practice, institutions within all three of these spheres play a role in welfare provision, with the state playing an important regulatory or coordinating role. Liberal regimes conceive of the state as the provider of last resort for most welfare services, with the previously noted exception of services that prepare and maintain a productive labor force. Welfare, to a considerable degree, is the responsibility of individuals and firms, and becomes an issue for state intervention only when one or the other of these does not meet their responsibilities. In that situation, the state has regulatory powers that may be used to create rules and incentives for firms and individuals to conform to expectations with regard to employment and welfare, and to impose penalties for noncompliance. The primary state role is one of developing workforce capacity, creating incentives for individuals to work, and maintaining a regulatory environment that guides decisions made by firms about benefits and work conditions for employees. In addition, states attempt to develop a voluntary sector through which many social services are provided; these efforts involve tax deductions for charitable contributions and the provision of funds to some nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations that are involved in direct service provision. These organizations are an important part of what Jennifer Wolch (1990) terms ‘the shadow state.’ While not institutionally part of the state apparatus, their existence and activities are regulated by the state and they perform vital services for the state.

Since the 1980s, many conservative and social democratic regimes have moved closer to the liberal form of welfare provision. Many developing countries, whose welfare apparatuses are not as well developed as those in industrialized countries, have also moved to this model due to structural adjustment and austerity programs imposed by international lending and aid organizations. At the same time, many new jobs in countries around the world do not provide the support for welfare provision that was assumed with liberal welfare regimes. These changes have shifted the boundaries between state, market, and civil society in ways that place the responsibility for maintaining welfare on civil society. However, these changes represent only a shift in the role of the state, not a declining role, as these changes are enabled and regulated through state action (Staeheli, et al. 1997).

The scales at which decisions about welfare provision are made constitute the final element that shapes the geography of the welfare state. Much of the discussion about the welfare state has focused on the national scale, even though service provision is often local. Late twentieth-century trends in welfare provision, though, highlight the limitations of such a focus. Many industrialized nations have begun to devolve much welfare decision-making to local and regional scales. Developing countries, as well, face pressures for devolution. For example, the United Nations Development Program argues in its Poverty Report that moving decision-making to local levels is an important element in creating governance structures that are more responsive to the needs of the populace, are more accountable, and will be more effective in poverty reduction (UNDP 2000). At the same time, increased globalization of the economy shifts economic decisions to scales above the nationstate. Finally, supranational and international institutions also shift the locus of decision-making. The European Union, for example, is attempting to harmonize social welfare provision and labor regulations, and international human rights conferences call for the development of standards of well-being and social provision. The combined effect is a reconfiguration of the scales at which decisions are made and welfare ensured. These trends highlight the importance of understanding the geography of the welfare state as multiscalar, in which decision-making with regard to various aspects of welfare provision is shifted between scales. While some aspects of decision-making and welfare provision may be devolved, other aspects may move outside the gambit of the nation-state to supranational and international scales.

2. Sources Of Variation In Welfare Provision

The structure of the welfare state within any region or country is the result of the interplay of many pressures and contextual factors. Some of these pressures may be specific to a particular place or country; these pressures might include gender and family ideologies. Other pressures might come from higher scales, such as the development of an international human rights regime that promotes a different ideology of gender and family. The interaction between processes, conditions, and practices that operate at local, national, and global scales gives rise to geographic variation in the welfare state and human well-being. While the sources of variation are many, three are of particular importance: the resources upon which states can draw, differences in ideology and political culture that shape the ways states conceptualize their roles, and pressures from international organizations.

The resources available to countries are clearly related to their overall level of wealth; at the same time, the need for social spending is also related to wealth. As a result, rich countries may have relatively small expenditures for welfare as a proportion of GDP, while still meeting basic needs. Thus, the Republic of Korea has a relatively small public budget and a low level of expenditure for social needs. As a relatively wealthy country, however, the overall level of well-being is high. By contrast, Pakistan and Indonesia have relatively large public budgets as a proportion of GDP. The proportion of the public budget, however, that is directed to social needs is very low, with predictable implications for overall wellbeing (UNDP 2000).

The above statements make clear that well-being and the success of welfare projects are affected by the pre-existing levels of well-being, by expenditure levels, and by the priorities established by national governments. The interaction between state action and contextual conditions in different localities gives rise to the uneven geography of welfare and well-being. Here the importance of the typologies developed by Esping-Andersen, Sainsbury, and others becomes clear, as those typologies reflect priorities and beliefs as to social rights. Social democratic and conservative regimes posit welfare as a social right of citizenship; liberal regimes do not to the same degree. Also at work are differences in the ways that regimes conceptualize the responsibilities of citizenship. Conservative regimes assign families a high level of responsibility for individual and community well-being once basic needs are met, whereas social democratic regimes do not. The balance between rights and responsibilities for welfare, then, reflects ideologies related to the idea of dependence and the roles of families and communities (Fraser and Gordon 1994). Some countries take wellbeing to be a social responsibility, and do not link citizenship to dependence. Others take well-being to be an individual responsibility and link citizenship with independence. The question facing developing countries and countries undergoing economic and politic transitions is which path they will follow. Here the role of international organizations becomes clear.

International organizations can influence, and in some cases determine, the path that countries will follow as they develop their welfare apparatus. The role of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in structural adjustment policies is well known. These organizations have made emphasis on productive activities a condition of development assistance. This has led to a redirection of public expenditure away from basic needs provision to public expenditures that support job growth (Corbridge 1993). While education may be a priority in this regard, health care, housing, and basic human needs may not. There is a widespread belief that responsibility for social reproduction has been shifted to families, and most particularly, to women (Lustig 1995).

Other international organizations propose poverty reduction strategies that rely on local communities, rather than national government support for social safety nets. The UNDP (2000), for example, argues:

The foundation of poverty reduction is self-organization at the community level. Such self-organization is the best antidote to powerlessness, a central source of poverty … . What the poor need, therefore, is not resources for safety nets but resources to build their own organizational capacity.

To the extent that such statements actually guide the development of welfare state apparatuses in poor countries, they would result in a high priority placed on local communities, rather than state or business support, as a basis for poverty reduction. This would represent a fourth model, not anticipated by Esping-Andersen. It is a model, however, that is based on a gender ideology in which women play critical, and often uncompensated, roles in social provision. This new model is also characterized by heightened variability in both institutional structures at the local level and welfare outcomes, as diverse structures interact with diverse local conditions. The result is a model of welfare provision with a complex geography, and in which well-being is clearly related to the jurisdictions within which people live and work.

3. Anticipating The Future Welfare State

There is a widespread belief that the commitment of states to social welfare provision is declining in countries around the world. The 1999 2000 World Development Report, however, does not show a consistent trend toward decreased public expenditure as a percentage of GDP, nor does it show a consistent trend toward retrenchment of public expenditures on social services. Indeed, of 47 countries reporting expenditures in both 1980 and 1997, 36 had either maintained or increased spending on social services (World Bank 1999, Table 14).

It is clear, however, that the pattern of expenditures is changing, even if the total level is not. The United Nations and World Bank have called for new approaches to social welfare and poverty amelioration. They urge a reorientation of welfare policy to integrate poverty amelioration with other goals of economic development, sustaining environments, better governance, and building community assets. The attempts to build social institutions and orient welfare policy to enhancing the capacity of communities to provide for their members are consistent with the language of welfare reform in developed countries. Increasingly, the social capital within communities is being looked to as a resource in welfare provision. Under these conditions, the welfare state may take on a larger coordinating role, providing institutional frameworks, with a smaller role in direct service provision.

The outcome of this emerging form of the welfare state is not clear. It seems reasonable to expect, however, that heightened variability and unevenness will characterize both the geography of institutional practices and the geography of outcomes. It may be that this unevenness will reflect the resources, capacities, and intentions of communities and localities in ways that make the welfare state more responsive and effective. However, as Cope (1997) suggests, it may also create new forms of uneven development, with rich areas getting richer and poor areas getting poorer.


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