Welfare Research Paper

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Welfare is the result of an expanding production of care, financial benefits, or other services for ensuring the material and cultural conditions for the reproduction of humans as biological beings, as economic producers and members of a work force, and as social beings and citizens (the conditions of integration in society and of social cohesion). These functions for satisfying a set of needs are performed through various informal or institutionalized arrangements (ranging from family support to public assistance and social insurance funds) and by various types of actors (families, employers, nonprofit organizations, public administrations, etc.).

By identifying the present-day producers of welfare, the first part of this research paper will show that what we now commonly call the welfare state represents a combination of the factors of production of welfare, wherein the state plays a major but not exclusive role. The second part will describe the combinations corresponding to different types of welfare states. Finally, recent trends in welfare and reforms thereof in response to the ‘crisis of the welfare state’ will be examined.

1. The Producers Of Welfare

There are three major producers of welfare: civil society, the market, and the state. Depending on its history, level of economic development, and political and social structures, each country has worked out its ‘mode’ of welfare production, characterized by a particular combination of these three pillars in what has been called the ‘welfare triangle.’

1.1 Society

Forms of solidarity based on belonging to a neighborhood, community, or family represented the first means of social protection and care for individuals, before state institutions replaced face-to-face solidarity with public welfare systems. The family and nonprofit organizations, in particular, are major producers of welfare in civil society.

1.1.1 The Family. The family used to be the major supplier of welfare to individuals. But even in welfare states, it remains an influential producer of welfare, supplying as it does much of the food, housing, education, and care to children and the elderly. These unremunerated activities performed by families—and mainly by women—have always represented a basic guarantee for the individual against the contingencies of life. When old-age pension funds did not exist and the person had neither an inheritance nor an estate, the best guarantee for old age was to have many children who could later satisfy the basic needs of their aging parents, when the latter would no longer be fit to work. Family care, a fundamental sort of welfare in preindustrial societies, was also one of the preconditions for the development of wage labor: ‘Participation in wage labor presupposes a support-system of unwaged labor outside the labor market’ (TaylorGooby 1991, p. 100).

Even though the modern welfare state has assumed many of the family’s traditional roles (especially in providing income support, education, and care to the young and old), the family still produces welfare. During the 1980s and 1990s, the spread of joblessness and the aging of the population have increased its role. For one thing, unemployed young people live longer with their parents. For another, governments have, given the increasing number of dependent older persons, encouraged families to increase their help and care for aging parents—the intention being to curb the growth in public expenditures devoted to caring for the elderly. In families with four generations, two of them in retirement, young retirees quite often have to handle the needs of both their unemployed adult children and their dependent elderly parents. However, the family’s role as a producer of welfare varies from one type of welfare state to another. Since welfare in southern Europe, for example, tends to be organized along the lines of providing monetary benefits, families there have to make up for the lack of adequate services.

1.1.2 Nonprofit Organizations. Nonprofit organizations are important producers of welfare, even in developed welfare states. The friendly or mutual aid societies of the past were the harbingers of the public social security systems of our times. At present, nonprofit organizations cooperate closely with the state in order to produce welfare. In many continental European countries, the state provides financing, and nonprofit organizations deliver services. In Germany for instance, most of the assistance provided to families and the elderly comes through federations of nonprofit organizations. The same holds for France. Nor should we set the nonprofit sector at odds with the marketplace. Many for-and non-profit hybrids have come into being. In France for example, certain home services for the elderly are provided through associations, which take the elderly’s place as an employer of home helpers and bill them the costs.

1.2 The Market

In the welfare vacuum in the early nineteenth century, security and well-being depended on one’s estate, on one’s status as property-owner. The person who owns ‘a capital or an estate thus has insurance whereas those who own nothing depend on others in case of need’ (Hatzfeld 1989, p. 27). At the turn of the twentieth century, a new type of security arose, based on social law (mainly labor law) instead of property rights. It served as the foundation for social insurance and social security systems.

On the periphery of these national welfare systems, the market continues, through private insurance funds and for-profit social services, satisfying part of the population’s welfare needs. Several national welfare systems allow for public as well as private, for-profit activities. Such is the case for health in France and Germany, and for education in the United Kingdom.

Since the 1980s, ‘neoliberal’ supporters of free enterprise have advocated fully or partly privatizing social insurance and, in particular, retirement funds (World Bank 1994). However, privatization risks splitting the population in two: those who have the means of contracting out to a private insurance policy and those who will depend on public assistance for minimal support.

Companies, too, produce welfare for their employees. To provide employees with (supplementary) health or pension benefits, they usually turn to the marketplace and private insurance funds. When such benefits are provided under collective agreements, representatives of labor and employer organizations run the programs. This happens in the countries described as ‘neocorporatist’ (Germany, France and The Netherlands). In some countries, such as the United States or Japan, company programs provide basic access to welfare. The phrase ‘corporate welfare’ has been used to describe the Japanese system.

1.3 The State

Before the late nineteenth century, the state primarily intervened in society in order to maintain law and order rather than to provide social security for all. It played the role of a police on the periphery of the ‘self-regulating’ marketplace (Polanyi 1944). Public assistance was, in the main, repressive.

Modern welfare states have arisen out of the massive industrialization and urbanization trends, and their consequences for the emerging working class. Working class poverty motivated increasing state interventions in social policy. As wage-earning developed, more and more people had a single source of income: the sale of their labor in the marketplace. Whenever their strength failed, when illness, joblessness or old age felled them, their lives plunged into insecurity. In this context, security could no longer depend on owning property or on individual responsibility. It would be linked to the labor law and the status of wage-earner. As sociohistorical studies have established, the welfare state was built up on a new linkage, characteristic of ‘wage-earning society,’ between the dependent status as wage-earner and an extensive system of protection against risks (Castel 1995). Wageearning employment and social security formed a system. The state would regulate it and vouchsafe the wage-earners’ new ‘social rights.’ Through its legislative and regulatory interventions, the state gradually made insurance for covering the risks of health and old age compulsory for employers and their employees; and it organized social protection.

As Ewald (1986) has shown, the technique of insurance led to a new conception of responsibility and risk, which has served as the foundation for the development of the welfare state. This conception broke with the liberal doctrine of individual responsibility and fault; and insurance offered a way out of the blind alley of paternalistic company-run welfare policies. It has thus become possible to avoid the quest to find a fault and the party causing it. The insurance technique replaces this quest with the question of how to collectively share the costs of risks. It has served as the basis for another conception of security in industry, and introduced a new rationality and a different paradigm of risk and security. On this basis, welfare states would develop after World War II. The welfare state represented a social pact between wageearners and employers, a pact backed by the state and, to a large degree, organized by it in various ways from country to country.

Modern welfare states guarantee a comprehensive set of social rights to all citizens. These rights have thus become a major part of citizenship. This universality differentiates contemporary welfare from the social laws of earlier times, which mainly targeted the poor or the working class. According to Briggs (1961), the welfare state modifies the interplay between forces in the marketplace in three main ways. First of all, it guarantees a minimum income to individuals and families. Second, it reduces insecurity by enabling individuals and families to cope with the risks related to illness, old age, unemployment, and disability. Third, it guarantees all citizens, regardless of class or social status, access to certain standard of social services and facilities. As a consequence, the idea of the welfare state centers around this reference to the necessity of counterbalancing the market economy’s negative effects. For this reason, ‘decommodification’ was one of the principal indicators used by Esping-Andersen (1990) to draw up a classification of ‘welfare regimes’ that is now solidly established in the literature.

2. Three Types Of Welfare Regimes

Initially, comparative research on welfare resorted to a single model of the welfare state, under which one quantity was used to measure the contribution to welfare, namely public expenditures on it. Countries were thus classified on a scale based on these expenditures. This sort of approach to understanding the welfare state led to the ‘industrialization’ or ‘convergence’ thesis (Wilensky 1975), which maintained that the major determinant underlying the development of the welfare state is economic growth, with its bureaucratic and demographic implications. Accordingly, the degree of welfare in a country was causally linked to the level of economic development there. This implied that all developed countries would gradually converge toward similar social security programs. This single-minded ‘developmentalist’ view of progress proved unable to account for the diversity and specific characteristics of welfare programs in different countries, and even less able to explain the timing of the introduction of such programs. Reducing all forms of public interventions to the single quantity of expenditures on welfare does not enable us to understand the specific ways that, from country to country, the state itself has been built up through close interactions with civil society (Rosanvallon 1990). As it turned out, the same level of expenditures might correspond to considerable differences in welfare states, in both their objectives and forms of organization. For these reasons, it was necessary to identify and analyze different types of institutional models of the welfare state.

The typology of welfare states worked out by EspingAndersen (1990) has replaced the foregoing approach. This scholar identified ‘three worlds of welfare capitalism’—social democratic, conservative-corporativist, and liberal or residual—a typology based on three criteria:

(a) the level which the system has reached in ‘decommodifying’ needs, i.e., the degree to which individuals or families can maintain a socially acceptable standard of living, independent of their participation in the market;

(b) the system’s impact on social stratification;

(c) the relationship between state, market, and family.

The social democratic welfare state, typical of Scandinavia, is the most ‘universalist’ of the three systems. It offers not just a high level of protection against risks, but also a good supply of services. This type of system ranks highest on the scale of decommodification, since its extensive ‘social rights’ grant individuals the most freedom from dependency on the market. Under this model, taxes serve to cover the costs of social services and benefits. The main aim is an equal redistribution of wealth. Hence, this type of system has a unifying effect on social stratification.

The conservative-corporativist welfare state is based on the wage-earning relationship. Benefits and services are granted as a function of one’s occupational category. The aim is not to redistribute wealth but to partly replace wage-earners’ income so as to maintain their status when they are at risk. This sort of system is financed not through taxes but through payroll contributions. Despite its generous benefits, it ranks lower on the scale of decommodification than the social democratic welfare state. Eligibility for benefits de- pends on access to the labor market and maintenance in the wage-earning status. When employment difficulties crop up, whole groups of young people, women, etc., lose their eligibility and fall back into the safety net of public assistance. Usually found in continental Europe outside Scandinavia, this type of system sometimes goes under the name of ‘continental welfare state.’

The liberal or residual welfare system assigns the most weight to the market economy and the least to the state. As a consequence, it ranks lowest on the decommodification scale. The state intervenes only as a last resort, and it serves mostly means-tested benefits tied to the person’s income. Very limited welfare is provided with the intention of favoring the person’s return to the labor market. In terms of social stratification, this system causes intense inequality between those who can take out private insurance and those who have to live on fixed, restricted allocations, and who are often stigmatized for receiving them. The United States of America is frequently mentioned as resembling, in many ways, this type of system.

As we can see, each of these welfare systems corresponds to a particular combination of welfare producers. Each combination of the three pillars— civil society, the market, and the state—in the welfare triangle represents a specific system of social protection. This combination cannot be reduced to state interventionism; instead, it assigns the state a degree of influence that varies along with that of the other two pillars of the welfare state.

3. The Challenge: Reforming Welfare States

Since the late 1970s, fierce criticism has increasingly been voiced about the crisis of contemporary welfare states. So far, however, reforms have met with strong institutional inertia. Most systems of social protection still have much the same structure as when they were set up four or five decades ago. The crisis of the welfare state was, at first, diagnosed in terms of the fact that all demands for welfare have gradually converged on the state, which, thus overburdened, has proven ineffective or even inefficient.

Several proposals of various sorts have been made for reforming the welfare state in line with this diagnosis. One sort seeks to reduce radically the state’s role; the actions of Thatcher in Great Britain and of Reagan in the United States have been interpreted in terms of this ‘retrenchment’ (Pierson 1994), as the state withdraws from welfare to the profit of the market. The supporters of another sort of reform have argued for ‘re-embedding’ solidarity in society (Rosanvallon 2000), so as to readjust the state’s role by reinforcing the pillar of society in the welfare triangle, whence the idea of a ‘welfare mix.’ Rein and Rainwater (1986) have argued that the welfare state is too narrow a framework to cope with details about the economic well-being of individuals in a society. Accordingly, reforms must reckon with all the producers of welfare, and with how they form new combinations in the welfare triangle.

From a similar perspective, current thought about coping with the crisis of European welfare states has taken as a starting point the specific institutional arrangements in each country (Bonoli and Palier 2000). ‘Each of Europe’s welfare regimes confronts a different set of adjustment problems depending on their particular characteristics and thus differs in their paths to reform’ (Ferrera et al. 2000, p. 431). For instance, the conservative-corporativist type of welfare system tends to be caught up in the vicious circle of ‘welfare without work’ (Esping-Andersen 1996). This syndrome incapacitates the system from dealing with the challenge of an aging population and its consequences for old-age pension funds. Such welfare states have usually implemented generous schemes for allowing wage-earners to withdraw from the labor market well before the age of retirement. They have thus favored the emergence of an ‘early exit culture’ that makes it impossible for pension reform to work. For this type of system, improving the ratio of the actively working to the retired population entails shifting from passive income support to active job policies for targeting aging wage-earners so as to maintain their employability and keep them in the work force (Guillemard 2001).

In conclusion, as this example shows, although European welfare states face the same challenges (in particular, demographic aging), they have to adopt reforms as a function of their particular problems. Imaginative solutions have to be tailored to the specific situation. They will come out of a complex process that cannot be reduced to a single procedure.


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