The future of welfare states

I was in Berlin this week for “Vision Europe Summit”, a conference on the future of the welfare state, organised by Bertelsmann Stiftung and Chatham House.  The main paper is here.  I found more to disagree with than to agree: I take a different view of the problems, the aims, the instruments and the prescriptions.  The paper suggests, for example, that there are three main objectives of welfare states:  redistribution, social protection (reduced to “piggy banks”) and social investment.  But there are far more aims than that – among them the relief of poverty, economic management and support for economic production,  behaviour change, social welfare, social control and humanitarian aid.  Similarly, there is no intrinsic reason to suppose that welfare is unsustainably expensive.  Countries often choose to consume more  as they get richer – which is understandable – but transfer payments are largely neutral in economic terms and the real question is whether payment for benefits and services is made by governments or independently.

I wasn’t presenting my own work, but I was asked at the last minute to step in to a panel as a respondent for a survey of public opinions about welfare.  The same problems apply here: people don’t share a common view of what the terms mean and it’s difficult from their responses to work out what they mean when they say, for example, that they’re not sure their pensions will be paid.  Because there’s no uniform model of the welfare state, generalisations about what people are saying don’t offer a clear guide.

6 comments

  1. caroline leclercq

    If Britain stays in Europe, the question of the welfare state will have to be evaluated again and again, for what is happening is that the British model is slowly being pared away to be in line with lesser “benefits” in the rest of Europe.

    • Paul Spicker

      We’re often given the impression, by the press or politicians, that benefits in the UK are unusually generous; that’s far from the truth. Our benefits have typically been good for coverage, but bad for adequacy; they usually average out as being somewhere in the middle relative to the rest of the EU. Our provision for unemployment has been condemned by the Council of Europe as ‘manifestly inadequate’.

      • caroline leclercq

        I am surprised at this, having seen the grim reality of life on the equivalent of JSE/Income Support in France, where such a portion of that benefit has to be used to back up an always only partial housing benefit that many people end up in the street unless they collect heavy food parcels every day. Having looked into this, it seems that the food bank situation in France has existed for many decades and that benefits are refarded as an adjunct.. I had thought this was possibly the situation in most continental countries – the exception being Scandinavia.

        • Paul Spicker

          That’s the point about coverage. French unemployment benefits are very much higher than ours – they’re run by a confederation of employers and trades unions – but they get reduced for longer-term unemployment, and they don’t go to everyone. The benefit you’ll have seen in France is probably the Revenu de solidarité active, which is for people who’ve been left out, rather than Assurance chomage. Look at this table from Tim Vlandas. UK benefits in the first year of unemployment – that’s for 80% of all unemployed people – come in at about 40% of the value of benefits in France.

          • caroline leclercq

            Yes – I do agree about Unemployment benefit, vastly superior in France. It’s the rest I’m worried about, but maybe I’m really off the point of your post. Best wishes.

  2. DOgilvieHsg

    Paul – I think your point about welfare systems not just being about social protection but also about behaviour change and social control are pretty key, but seem sadly to be beyond the grasp of those currently leading the process of ‘welfare reform’. It’s perhaps a point worthy of further political consideration, though I wouldn’t presume to say you’d agree on that point? What the UK Government are engaged in is not just a process of seeking to reduce the cash value of running a system of social security, but it’s more about unleashing market forces on people’s lives in a way which could be potentially very destabilising for society and the economy?

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