Thursday, February 18, 2010

Whither the Welfare State?

There are several paradoxes in the historical debate among social policy circles. One example is the historical development of the “good society”. “Good society” arose in conjunction with women’s shifting gender roles (Esping-Andersen, 1990b). Whereas modernization signified that women were afforded much more choice in terms of career and life, this also resulted in increased risk, as there was a marked increase in unstable households and family arrangements. This represents one of many paradoxes that the welfare state brings up.

An additional paradox is the increasing emphasis on skilled workers, which is reminiscent of social policies such as Canada’s immigration laws, which favor workers with professional skills. On the other hand, the last century (and since the writing of both of Esping-Andersen’s articles) has seen an increase in low-end, low-skill jobs. This mismatch of demand and social policy creates a paradox in that the ideal does not match the reality. This is illustrated by in the recent global economic crisis, which hasn’t been seen since the 1930s. Reflecting the countless narratives of laid-off workers over the past year, Esping-Andersen’s (1990b) words foretold of this predicament: “Those with insufficient skills or cultural and social resources may easily slide into a life course marked by low pay, unemployment, and precarious jobs” (p.2).

The idea that class no longer matters, or rather, “class may be less visible” (Esping-Andersen, 1990b) brings to mind Ulrich Beck’s theory of risk society, which was also proposed in the 1990s. Beck (1992) suggested that class is no longer an adequate way to structure and view society. He claimed that the consequences of human actions as a function of modernity and industrialization (much like Esping-Andersen’s (1990b) “structural transformation”) have introduced a wide array of risks and uncertainties, which exacerbates the risk of the everyday. This is another paradox, as the risks of today’s modern society are generated by the very methods of modernization that are trying to control them. In this way, the traditional certainties and securities of the pre-modern society can no longer be relied upon. This reflects the “great ironical twist of historical change” (Esping-Andersen, 1990b), in that the structural transformation of modernization that social policy addresses also necessitates social policy.

In further outlining the historical development of “good society”, Esping-Andersen (1990b) discusses the role of the libertarian and neo-liberal call for social reform. Their proposition suggested that big government and excessive regulation were to blame to “social segmentation and the reproduction of poverty” (p. 4). This seems counter-intuitive, as big government oftentimes creates more social programs and policies in attempts to address social inequalities and ills. Likewise, today, the libertarian model embraces a platform that condemns big government and excessive regulation. And like today, they failed to gain public support for their vision of “good society”, as many viewed it as too radical. Their efforts were not all for naught, however, as the seeds for Britain’s “Third Way” were planted. The “Third Way” was able to take the best aspects of the libertarian and neo-liberal “Good Society” platform and combined it with the right place and the right time (Esping-Andersen, 1990b).

Here arises yet another paradox. How can one welfare state be a model for another state, when there are so many variables and confounders to consider? For no two welfare states are alike. It’s impossible to compare, because they are different on so many levels. Esping-Andersen (1990a) notes that when scholars have attempted to compare welfare state variations, for example, “relevant measures of working-class mobilization or economic openness are not included” (p.19). Another case in point is when we assume that spending counts equally, but in reality, “expenditures are epiphenomenal to the theoretical substance of welfare states” (p.19). In his discussion of the effects of globalization on the welfare state, DeHann (nd) also proposes that globalization changes the composition of states, and average trends in poverty reduction and inequalities are inadequate for comparison. It is fascinating to suggest that the process of linearly comparing welfare states is not effective. There must be a way to compare components of welfare states, rather than welfare states as a whole. How can we best overhaul this system of evaluating what works and what doesn’t work when addressing the welfare of states and the people within those states?

Perhaps, we should be focusing on known and proven long-term outcomes, rather than side-by-side comparisons of isolated variables. Esping-Andersen (1990b) notes that life chances are dependant upon investment in learning abilities and accumulation of human capital. For example, early childhood and development (ECD) programs make a strong case that investments in ECD lead to improved outcomes in cognitive development and educational attainment. There is also an argument for investing in the future, with policies implemented with young children, with the effects felt generationally. In looking at long-term outcomes, we might better understand the true impact of social welfare, and make a stronger case for its continued support. Furthermore, social welfare should be expanded to include wider definitions of poverty. Poverty shouldn’t just include fiscal outcomes, such individuals living below the poverty line. Rather there should be consideration for people who are at risk of poverty, due to lack of education, low skills, and decreased access to human capital. If there was more attention paid to broader definitions poverty to include at-risk populations, we might not have seen such devastating impacts of the financial crisis on individuals and families.


Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage Publications.

DeHann. (nd). Globalization, inequality, and the demise of the state? From DeHann, Reclaiming

Social Policy.

Esping-Andersen, G. (1990a). The three political economies of the welfare state. From G.

Esping-Andersen, The Three Political Economies of the Welfare State.

Esping-Andersen, G. (1990b). Towards the good society, once again? From G. Esping-Andersen,

Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.