Social Welfare Policies And Gender Research Paper

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In conceptualizing and defining social welfare policies, much discussion has revolved around the residual institutional or the marginal comprehensive distinction. This distinction is important in determining what policies are included in the term social welfare policies. Narrow definitions frequently confine social welfare policies to income maintenance programs—assistance and social insurance, and sometimes tax benefits. Broad definitions expand the policies to encompass provision of housing, healthcare, education, and an array of other social services.



The rise of the women’s movement in the late 1960s and the development of women’s studies prompted a re-examination of social welfare policies that focused on gender. In bringing gender into the analysis of social welfare policies, two strategies were pursued. First, the dearth of information about the impact of policies on women and differing outcomes for women and men led to an approach that primarily centered on women. A byproduct of this approach has been to make women visible in the analysis. The second strategy has stressed gender as a relational category where the inquiry explicitly deals with both women and men. Instead of making women visible, this strategy has shown how gender is involved in policies where it had previously been thought to be completely irrelevant.

A number of trends in research on gender and social welfare policies are discernible during the 1980s and 1990s. The initial emphasis on studying the impact of social welfare policies on women has been supplanted by a concern with how gender structures policies and how policies affect gender relations (O’Connor 1996). Generalizations based on the policies of a single country have given way to theory building grounded in comparative analyses (Lewis 1992; Orloff 1993; Sainsbury 1996; O’Connor et al. 1999). The first wave of theorizing was informed largely by the social welfare policies of the English-speaking countries (e.g., Wilson 1977), while a second wave reflected the experiences of the Scandinavian countries (e.g., Hernes 1987), and in the 1990s the range of countries has further expanded (e.g., Sainsbury 1999).

Comparative research has charted and attempted to explain major variations in policies across nations. The variations revealed by this research have challenged earlier generalizations derived from the experiences of one nation, especially those that held specific features and outcomes were intrinsic to social welfare policies. Views on the nature of welfare policies have also shifted. In the 1970s a widespread view was that welfare policies were mainly instruments of patriarchal oppression; eventually more consideration has been devoted to the emancipatory potential of policies. This reconsideration has focused on both the unintentional consequences of policies that have benefited women or have undermined traditional gender relations (Pateman 1988) and the implications of different policy constructions (Sainsbury 1996). A parallel shift has occurred in theorizing about women’s relationships to welfare policies. Previously women were regarded as the objects of policy, while in the 1990s research explored women’s agency in shaping welfare policies (Skocpol 1992; O’Connor et al. 1999; Sainsbury 1999). Finally, a weakness of many earlier studies was their exclusive preoccupation with gender. Gradually, however, more attention has been paid to how gender intersects with race, ethnicity, and class in determining social entitlements (e.g., Williams 1989; Quadagno 1994).

Employing the lens of gender, scholars have called in question the definition of social welfare policies. They have been critical of narrow definitions of social welfare policies that focus solely on income maintenance programs. Feminist researchers have objected to the pivotal position of paid work in the analysis of social welfare policies. The emphasis on paid work takes men as the norm, and it obscures the importance of unpaid labor. This focus has also downplayed services and care. The incorporation of gender into the analysis has also substantially altered the research agenda on social welfare policies. Priority has been assigned to four areas of investigation: (a) the gender division of welfare, (b) the gendered construction of welfare policies, (c) welfare policies as an ordering force in gender relations, and (d) gender and explanations of welfare policies.

1. The Gender Division Of Welfare

Social welfare policies—especially assistance and social insurance benefits—traditionally have been conceived as instruments of social protection and redistribution. At a minimum, social welfare policies should protect individuals from poverty and relative deprivation. More ambitiously, the policies aim to promote the general welfare and well being of the population. Mainstream studies evaluating the redistributive effects of social welfare policies largely have been gender blind. The units of analysis have been social class or occupational groups, households, generations, regions within a country, or nations. By contrast, feminist research has focused on the gender division of welfare and how the construction of policies has produced differences in the benefits received by women and men. The differences concern both access to benefits and benefit levels.

With this focus, studies have mapped out the gender composition of beneficiaries of social welfare policies. Early research found that a disproportionate number of women were beneficiaries, but these studies examined the English-speaking countries. When other countries were included in the examination, a different pattern emerged: men predominated as beneficiaries. In these countries social insurance schemes whose eligibility was based on labor market participation were central to social provision; men also collected family allowances as part of these schemes. Even when the allowance has been paid to the married mother, eligibility has been determined by the father’s rights as an insured employee. Although men predominate as beneficiaries in some countries, households headed by women are more reliant on social welfare benefits than male headed households because men command a larger share of earnings. In many cases, especially when benefits are earnings related, the benefit levels of men are higher than those of women.

Studies have also documented disparities in the poverty rates of women and men. An initial finding was the feminization of poverty in the US in the mid- 1970s. Although the poverty rates of women and men in the US had dropped substantially since the 1950s, the composition of the poor had changed dramatically so that women were overwhelmingly in the majority. In many countries the poverty rates of women are higher than those of men. However, among the industrialized countries, the poverty rate of women in the US ranks as highest, and the gender poverty gap is also the largest (Casper et al. 1994). Nonetheless, there are countries—such as Italy, The Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries (Sainsbury 1999)—where differences in the gender poverty gap are small or women have lower poverty rates than men. In summary, empirical research on the gender composition of beneficiaries of income maintenance programs in the US revealed an anomaly: women outnumber men as beneficiaries but their poverty rates were much higher than men’s. This anomaly, together with cross-national variations, spurred theorizing about the sources of gender inequalities in benefits and the gendered construction of social welfare policies.

2. The Gendered Construction Of Social Welfare Policies

Much analysis has concentrated on how gender norms and meanings are encoded in social welfare policies. One line of theorizing emphasizes that the gendered construction of social welfare policies results in dual welfare. This involves a two tiered system of social benefits, consisting of a ‘masculine’ set of programs geared to individuals who make claims as earned rights based on labor market participation and a ‘feminine’ set of programs oriented to households that claim benefits to compensate for family failures. Underlying the two-tier benefit system are gender norms that define the home as a female sphere and outside work is a male sphere. Women thus claim benefits on the basis of tasks in the home and their benefits are familialized, while men’s claims are primarily labor market related and individualized (Fraser 1989). Another variant of the thesis puts more weight on the dual labor market as the source of dual welfare (Nelson 1984). In any event, according to the dual welfare thesis, women and men are segregated into different types of social welfare programs: women rely more heavily on means-tested or income-tested benefits, and men on social insurance schemes. Assistance programs and social insurance are further differentiated in terms of benefit levels, political legitimacy and administrative intervention in private lives so that the quality of women’s and men’s social rights diverge greatly.

The importance of the dual welfare thesis is that it calls attention to the gender differentiation of social provision and specifies the differing implications for women and men. However, the thesis has been criticized on several grounds. The thesis is a generalization based primarily on social welfare policies in the US, but gender differentiation in entitlements varies in different ways across countries. Even with regard to the social welfare policies of the US the dual welfare thesis is misleading in one significant respect. The emphasis on predominance of women claiming means- tested benefits overlooks that many more women receive social insurance benefits on the basis of their husband’s entitlements in the US (Orloff 1993; O’Connor 1996).

In studying the gendered construction of income maintenance policies, Orloff (1993) and O’Connor et al. (1999) distinguishes between gender differentiation and gender inequality. Gender differentiation is related to separate programs for labor market and family needs, shaping claims to benefits: women claim benefits as wives and caregivers, while men make their claims as family providers and earners. Gender in- equality pertains to the differences in the benefit levels of women and men. The legislation of most countries ascribes less value to wifely and motherly labor than to paid work, resulting in gender inequalities in benefit levels. Spouse benefits and additional allowances for dependents have generally been a percentage—often around half—of the regular benefits received by men. Furthermore, the traditional division of labor between the sexes assigns domestic work and care to women, which has limited their ability to qualify for more lucrative benefits as earners.

Another important starting point has been an examination of the inscription of male breadwinner family model in social security legislation, taxation, and employment policies. As distinct from the discussions on dual welfare and gender differentiation, which look at income maintenance schemes, the male breadwinner model has been applied to a wider range of policies. Lewis and Ostner (1991) argue that this model has been built into social provision in varying degrees, and they classify countries as strong, moderate, and weak male breadwinner states. Subsequently, the weak male breadwinner category has more appropriately been termed the dual breadwinner model (Lewis 1992) or the dual earner model. A major contribution of this typology was to emphasize that the strength of the male breadwinner model as reflected in social welfare policies varied across countries. Nonetheless, the typology does assume a single basic underlying dimension, and that social welfare policies are informed by the male breadwinner model. A major criticism of this analytic construct is that it is based on two principles of entitlement: (a) as breadwinner or earner and (b) as the dependent of the breadwinner. Thus, it overlooks other bases of entitlement and it conflates women’s entitlements as wives and mothers (Sainsbury 1996). The problematic nature of the typology is also revealed by its inadequacy in analyzing the entitlements of single mothers. Hobson (1994) has documented substantial variation across strong breadwinner states—such as The Netherlands, Germany, and Britain—in terms of social welfare policies providing mother only families with an acceptable standard of living.

Jenson (1997) has criticized Lewis’s emphasis on the nexus between paid work, unpaid labor, and welfare, stressing that unpaid work is not a synonym for care. Jenson calls for making care central in theorizing about the gendered construction of welfare policies. More specifically, this would involve an analysis of ‘the gender division of labor among caregivers, gender differences in the capacity or need to pay, and the gender consequences of different institutional arrangements for provision’ (1997, p. 187).

Sainsbury (1996) has developed a framework based on two ideal types: the male breadwinner model and the individual model. This framework formalizes and expands the dimensions of variation implicit in Lewis’s typology. The dimensions are: the nature of the familial ideology, the basis and unit of entitlement, the taxation system, employment and wage policies, and the organization of care work. It also clarifies an alternative policy model to the male breadwinner model. A major drawback of this analytic scheme is that it limits the models to two contrasting ideal types, but its dimensions of variation have proved to be a useful point of departure for empirical analysis and theory building.

A final development has been to theorize the gendered construction of social welfare policies in terms of gender regimes or gender policy regimes. More precisely, a regime consists of values, norms and rules, thus providing a normative or regulatory framework that influences behavior. A policy regime re- directs the analysis from behavior to policies. Analogous to the notion of a social policy regime that emphasizes that a given state–economy organization provides a logic of it own, a gender policy regime is a given organization of gender relations associated with a specific policy logic. The organization of gender relations is determined by principles and norms (gender ideologies and practices) that specify the tasks, obligations, and rights to the two sexes (e.g., Sainsbury 1999).

All of these frameworks have furnished insights into the gendered construction of social welfare policies. Studies employing the frameworks have often challenged earlier classifications of countries’ policies that neglected gender, leading to revisions and new understandings. Analyzing Britain, The Netherlands, Sweden, and the US, Sainsbury (1996) found strong divergences in the policy patterns of the four countries, and that the clustering of countries was quite different from how countries are bracketed together in analyses using mainstream typologies. In several mainstream studies Sweden and The Netherlands have been grouped together as countries with generous social welfare policies, but the gendered construction of Dutch and Swedish policies represented opposite poles, especially prior to the mid-1980s. Similarly, a study comparing the inscription of gender in the social welfare policies of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden revealed sharp differences between Norway and Sweden—the two countries that most closely approximate the social democratic welfare regime in mainstream literature (Sainsbury 1999). Orloff’s examination of income maintenance policies in Australia, Britain, Canada, and the US led her to conclude that the way gender norms are encoded in these programs undermines the coherence of the liberal welfare regime (O’Connor et al. 1999).

3. The Impact Of Social Welfare Policies On Gender Relations

Conceiving of social welfare policies as an ordering force in gender relations rivets attention on the implications of policies for reinforcing or undermining the traditional division of labor among women and men in the family and society. Theorizing on how traditional gender relations have been inscribed in policy frameworks has underlined that policies and benefit structures perpetuate existing relations and the subordination of the female sex.

Whether policies actually have these effects, however, is a matter for empirical research. In other words, it is necessary to distinguish between the gendered framework of policies and policy outcomes. Several discussions have conflated policy models and behavior. Women’s labor market participation rates have been taken as evidence of a particular policy model but without examining whether policies are in place to enable or limit women’s employment. For example, married women in the US have entered the labor force in massive numbers, despite income tax policy and social security measures that are biased heavily in favor of the traditional family with a single earner.

Both the principles underlying entitlement and the redistributive effects of policies have major implications for gender relations. The basis of entitlement is a crucial aspect in determining the impact of welfare policies on gender relations and whether policies buttress women’s dependency on men or enhance their autonomy (Sainsbury 1996). At one extreme, women’s entitlements as wives and means-tested benefits reinforce married women’s dependency. If women are entitled to benefits and services as wives, i.e., their entitlement derives from their husband’s rights, their dependency within the family is exacerbated. In this situation a woman’s rights are jeopardized by divorce or may be contingent upon a marriage test—a specified number of years of marriage that guarantees entitlement. In means tested programs, the family is usually the unit of benefit; and need is established on the basis of family income. In these instances, benefits are familialized. Benefits based on the principle of care occupy a middle position. Although these benefits may buttress traditional gender relations, they recognize the importance of care and thus alter notions of deservingness. The principle of care also erodes the importance of marriage. Compared to entitlements as wives, benefits based on the principle of care enhance autonomy. Benefits whose eligibility is based on labor market participation or citizenship residence have greater potential to increase personal autonomy. Even if women workers are likely to receive lower benefits compared to men workers, benefits based on labor market participation are an independent source of income and they can lessen married women’s dependency on benefits based on their husband’s rights. Finally, benefits based on citizenship or residence accord equal social rights to women and men. This basis of entitlement neutralizes marital status as a criterion of eligibility. It not only equalizes benefits between women and men but also between unmarried and married persons—and husband and wife. Likewise, citizenship/residence as a basis of entitlement makes no distinction between paid and unpaid work, which enhances the social rights of persons with weak attachments to the labor market.

Regardless of the basis of entitlement, welfare policies have redistributive effects that can alter the resources of women vis-a-vis men. In turn, changing resources between the sexes can affect gender relations. In countries where married women receive their own retirement pension, even though entitlement was based on their husband’s rights, wives’ contribution to family earnings has on average been higher compared to other couples. An even more striking example is that income maintenance programs, public provision of affordable child care services, and/or tax benefits enable women to leave an unhappy relationship or marriage and strike out on their own. In most industrialized countries lone parent families are increasing, and social welfare policies help to make this family form a viable option.

Policies that promote women’s access to paid work are also vital to changing gender relations (Orloff 1993; O’Connor et al. 1999; Sainsbury 1999). Policy measures enabling employment provide both earnings and individualized social benefits, weakening or eliminating dependence on the male family provider. Women with high earnings have substantial bargaining power within the family, and this leverage can alter how partners divide unpaid domestic work among themselves.

While most analysts have empirically investigated the outcomes of policies on gender relations, Fraser (1994) adopts a normative stance and asks how can social welfare policies promote gender equity. She presents three policy models and evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of each model in terms of achieving gender equity. The first is the universal breadwinner model where policies promote women’s employment so that the breadwinner role becomes universal—and is no longer reserved for men. In the caregiver parity model, public policies support informal care so that the role of caregiver is on a par with the role of breadwinner. The policies of the earner– carer model support both roles but simultaneously aim at eliminating gender differentiation. This involves policies that aid women in becoming earners and men in becoming carers (cf. Sainsbury 1996, 1999).

4. Gender And Explanations Of Social Welfare Policies

In studies emphasizing the gendered construction of policies, gender relations themselves or the prevailing gender ideology are often a primary explanation of the particular form that social welfare policies take. Kessler-Harris (2000), e.g., conceives of gender as a historical agent, as an ideational force that configures and sustains systems of cultural representation. She has examined how gender mediates policy discussions between interest groups in providing or denying legitimacy to their proposals in the areas of social insurance, taxation and labor legislation.

Other studies have emphasized the role of women’s political mobilization and the institutional setting in shaping social welfare policies. In attempting to explain the late introduction of social insurance schemes and the early adoption of maternal welfare measures in the US, Skocpol (1992) underlines the importance of the state in politicizing gender identities that lead groups to mobilize, the correspondence between the form of political organizing and the structure of the state that allows or thwarts a group’s influence on policies, and policy legacies.

Along similar lines, O’Connor et al. (1999) suggest an explanatory framework made up of the following elements: social movement mobilization and orientation, political party configuration, the political opportunity structure, and the institutional context and legacy. The movement’s orientation involves its political strategy to achieve gender equality, specifically the movement’s attitude toward the state and its gender ideology, whether emphasis is on sameness or differences between the sexes. Political party configuration refers to the strength of left, center and right parties. The political opportunity structure is defined as access to the state institutions, the stability or fluidity of political alignments and relationships to allies and support groups. The institutional context and legacies encompasses the structure of the state, bureaucratic capacity, and the industrial relations framework (see also Sainsbury 1999). In short, many scholars have abandoned the view that women are simply the objects of policy, or ‘policy takers’ (Hernes 1987, p. 35). Instead research has focused on, first, women’s power resources—organizational forms, discourses and strategies—in a variety of national and historical contexts and, second, how these contexts limit or promote women’s capacities to influence social welfare policies.


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