All nations that accept responsibility for the maintenance of the welfare of their citizens may be correctly labelled ‘welfare states’, though such a simple description cannot fully capture the diversity and variety of arrangements and understandings implied by the term. ‘Welfare state’ has been taken to variously mean a set of key welfare institutions, a type of society that emphasises collectivist provision, or a ‘distinctive form of polity’ (Pierson, 1998, 7). My focus will be on looking at the use of the term to describe a particular type of nation-state and exploring why such states developed, though I also accept that the term ‘welfare state’ can also be legitimately used in other contexts.
In looking to describe the characteristics of nation that would be classed as a welfare state, we are not dealing with a homogenous group made up of identical national welfare systems, but rather a variety of different models for the provision of welfare. Esping-Anderson’s convincing The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (1990) identified three different major types of welfare state – conservative (classic European), social democratic (Scandinavian) and liberal (Anglo-American).
He asserts that while all of these models of social provision are considered to be welfare states, each class of welfare state is underpinned by dramatically different policy assumptions that lead to significant variations in both the form and extent of welfare provision. For example, while the conservative welfare state is deemed to focus on meeting the income needs of the male breadwinner, the social democratic welfare state instead emphasises equal citizenship for all. This leads it to be characterised by a much more extensive system of redistribution than the conservative model.
Before looking at the broad differences of emphasis and focus between different types of welfare states, we must first explore the common characteristics that they all share. All definitions agree that a welfare state must at least provide for the ‘basic necessities’ (Goodin ; Mitchell, 2000, I, ix) of living. Thus, it is generally accepted that it is the role of the welfare state to provide adequate resources (usually by using cash benefits) to ensure all can afford to eat, and have access welfare services such as education, healthcare and housing which are considered absolutely necessary. This does not, however, necessarily imply state provision.
Rather, it implies state responsibility, which is an entirely different matter. Goodin ; Mitchell state that the welfare state is characterised by its ‘organised social action’, which means that ‘either the state performs welfare activities itself, or else it ensures that they are done’ (2000, I, ix). This sums up the key characteristic that is common to all welfare states – acceptance of responsibility for welfare by the state – while allowing for the broad range of methods and welfare mixes that the different types of welfare states use in order to fulfil this responsibility. Recent moves to reform the welfare state have often sought to change the balance between different welfare providers of welfare, while maintaining the principle of government responsibility.
For example, in United States the government is proposing to provide financial support to voluntary and faith-based groups that provide social care. While there are those that decry such efforts as an attempt to ‘dismantle’ the welfare state, it is clear that in light of the dual modern trends of decentralisation and globalisation, there may be further moves away from centrally provided welfare. This does not, however, imply the end of the welfare state. As long as government still takes responsibility for the maintenance of welfare by organising social action, it does not matter what form or method this action takes.
No matter what form of provision is preferred, it is agreed that state responsibility for welfare automatically implies a degree of redistribution. It is the extent to which this redistribution is itself an intrinsic aim of the welfare state that is controversial and which seems to vary between types of state. Does the term ‘welfare state’ necessarily imply an attempt to move towards a equality of opportunity through the provision of universal benefits, or is the role, as Goodin ; Mitchell suggest, a more limited one – to provide welfare just for those ‘who might otherwise lack the basic necessities required for effective functioning within their community’?
Today it is difficult to think of the welfare state without the universal education and healthcare benefits that are provided, but in the past any emphasis placed on using the welfare state as a tool to further equality of opportunity or to ‘reallocate life chances’ (Pierson, 1998, 7) was controversial. Writing in the decade after the foundation of universal welfare services, Titmuss summarised the complaints – ‘It is said that the relief of poverty or the maintenance of a national minimum as an objective of social policy should not mean the pursuit of equality’ (1958, 35).
While the post-1945 provision of universal benefits may have been influenced by a political desire to advance towards equality of opportunity, if not total equality of outcome, there are other sensible economic and political explanations to justify the development, or at least the maintenance, of a wide-ranging welfare state operating universal services. The introduction of social insurance schemes, it is argued for example, would not have been possible without a universal system to avoid problems of adverse-selection and asymmetric information. Similarly, many have argued (e.g. Barr, 1998) that there are significant efficiency gains to be made from the collective provision of healthcare.
Furthermore, the decision to provide universal services rather than limiting state activity to the provision of just the ‘basic necessities’ of the working class can be seen not just as an ideological decision, but instead as a calculated political move to build a coalition of support for the welfare-state, encompassing both the working and middle classes. If concern for equality of opportunity motivated initial moves to provide universal services, the entrenchment of these services during the post-war consensus made both economic and political sense. Today, it is a characteristic of all welfare states that they provide at least some universal services.
Now, let us move on to consider the causes of welfare state development. In general terms, it can be said that there has been broad post-war consensus amongst academics studying the core reasons for the development of welfare states in a similar way as there was between politicians agreeing on the need for the welfare state. The historical development of what became welfare states was only possible, it is argued (Pierson, 1998), because of the joint ‘societal developments’ of industrialisation, demographic change, the growth of nation states and democratisation.
Industrialisation heralded a new era of national wealth, the development of which required manual workers to live in urban conditions close to the factories. Mass migration from the country to cities in order to work in factories sparked significant demographic changes in population structure and density. With urban manual workers now living in highly concentrated numbers, the logistics of administering welfare services to a contained community rather than scattered individuals became much easier. The concentrated nature of the living conditions of manual workers also emphasised the suffering that occurred when industrialisation brought on the first experiences of cyclical industrial unemployment, which occurred when factories shut down during economic slow-downs.
In such circumstances, with scores of men forced out of work at the same time, attitudes towards the destitute began to change. Aided by the results of poverty research surveys by the likes of Booth and Rowntree, attitudes moved away from a general tendency to blame the individual idleness of the poor, towards a recognition that some unemployment may in fact be caused by the structure of the economy. Industrialisation thus provided both the target of early state-sponsored welfare efforts (an urban working class subject to cyclical unemployment) and the means by which these efforts could be delivered (the wealth provided by industrialisation).
Advocates of the ‘Industrialism needs’ thesis such as Wilensky, saw the development of welfare provision a logical next step in light of the process of industrialisation. Disagreeing with Fraser (1973), they dismiss the idea that any rise in welfare provision was because of a ‘growth of charitable sentiment’, asserting instead that the rapidly developing industrial revolution required healthy workers which the growth of welfare provided. Therborn (1987) even sees the provision of state welfare as an action to correct ‘the failure of markets in securing human reproduction’, which was needed to ensure a constantly increasing population of willing workers. While I cannot object to the logic of the industrialism-advocates in their arguments explaining why basic levels of welfare were provided, their thesis goes on give no explanation about the further development of more complex, extended forms welfare provision and the progress towards establishment of a welfare state.
This development is best understood by combining the process of industrialisation with later moves towards democratisation. In Britain, while industrialisation was proceeding at full speed throughout the first half of the 19th century, the only piece of welfare legislation was the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which emphasised traditional ideas of self-responsibility for the able-bodied while formulating a new framework for the distribution of poor relief. Such legislation certainly did not act, as Slack (1995) has suggested, as ‘the welfare state in miniature’, but instead simply as the minimal level of support required within the new industrial context to ensure that the poor continued to avoid starvation. Meaningful attempts by the state to provide for the welfare of citizens did not occur until the passage of parliamentary reform acts that extended the right to vote, after which welfare progress was made, not by the take-over of the political system by the working-class representatives, but rather by tactical welfare concessions to the working-class by politicians such as Disraeli and Gladstone, who fought to gain power on the basis of their vote.
Actions such as the Artisans’ Dwelling Act (1875), Public Health Act (1875), and the Education Act (1880) gave powers to local authorities to improve the welfare of residents. Where electoral considerations dictated, such as in Birmingham, where Joseph Chamberlain successfully ruled as Mayor by directing large schemes of public improvement, increased welfare provision for the poor became the norm, though in other areas the powers granted by central government were rarely used to much effect. Compare the experience of rural and urban areas – while urban areas organised more quickly, started to develop union structures and were offered welfare improvements, rural Britain was the ‘most politically quiescent’ (Thane, 1982, 9), rural labourers were not granted the vote until 1884, several years after their urban equivalents, and were also the slowest to unionise.
As a result, rural areas were the last to receive adequate schooling and housing, simply because they could not exert the pressure on either the capitalists (who only bothered about the situation of their potential urban workers) or politicians (who could ignore them as long as they were without political clout). It was not until a further wave of democratisation in the early 20th Century, that made the male franchise almost-universal, that liberal politicians felt obliged to lay the foundations of a nation-wide welfare state, establishing universal schemes such as national insurance and pensions that gave welfare provision to all.
It is sensible to suggest that the most basic improvements in 19th Century welfare provision were made as a response to the ‘logic’ of industrialisation. However, the pattern of later developments, were not inevitable developments without increasing democratisation and working-class organisation. Even then, it is not clear that direct political-mobilisation of the working classes won further improvements in welfare provision. More convincing is a games-theoretical variation of Korpi’s power resources model (1989), where concessions to the masses in the form of welfare improvements were offered by the elite capitalist class so that they could continue to rule. Disrali’s statement that ‘The palace is not safe when the cottage is not happy’ belies the fact that welfare reform was seen as a necessary act of appeasement to the masses rather than the product of any concerted attempt to reduce class inequalities.
Such explanations are successful in explaining the general development of welfare states across nations, but cannot explain the variations that exist between the different types of welfare state that have developed over time. Wilensky (1975) suggests that welfare state development will be proportional with economic development, but this approach seems to ignore the historical continuities of type of welfare provided by each state. According to this suggestion, the U.S. should have drastically developed its welfare state as it became an economic superpower, whereas in fact, if anything the opposite is true – the welfare state developed most during the great depression, but since then the emphasis has been on traditional American values of limited government and individual-responsibility.
Skocpol’s thesis (1988) that the design of political institutions played the leading role in determining the extent of welfare state that developed can be used to develop historical continuities (e.g. extensive welfare enactment in the U.S. has always been limited because of the diffusion of power around the system and the multiplicity of veto-points [Myles ; Quadagno, 2002]), though I feel a path-dependent approach of ad-hoc welfare development on top of existing structures is more realistic. Thane points out that ‘no politician.. at the beginning of the 20th Century planned a welfare state’ – instead reforms were instituted to overlap with existing systems and attitudes wherever possible. Such an approach makes sense to a pragmatic politician, who looks to reform while minimising the opposition that inevitably comes from disturbing the status-quo.
Accordingly, one can argue that the Scandinavian counties developed early policy-preferences towards encouraging labour-market participation, and that as a result, welfare programs have developed on top of this underlying preference. Recent conservative Scandinavian governments have found it difficult to carry out welfare reforms that have questioned the justification of existing provisions. Similarly, British welfare systems have been dominated by the sort of thinking that motivated the old poor law – self-responsibility. This has allowed for the provision of subsistence benefits and the development of limited universal services that have not been on the same scale as those enjoyed in the rest of Europe.
Questions about the definition and development of the welfare state cannot be considered separately from each other. All welfare states share some common characteristics – the most obvious being the acceptance of responsibility for citizens’ welfare and the provision of some universal services – which reflect the symmetrical development of industrialisation and democratisation throughout the Western world. However, these general similarities between welfare states are strongly contrasted by an accompanying strong degree of variation and differentiation caused by country-specific development along a path-dependent course. As a result, the formulation of any specific definition of a generic ‘welfare state’, with details of method, motivation and extent of provision, is impossible.
Lewis Atkinson Wadham College Social Policy Week 1