Welfare State

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IN THE 1970S AND 1980S


The term welfare state entered everyday discourse in Britain in the 1950s. It was a translation of the German der Wohlfahrtstaat, which had been used in Germany, mainly among liberal intellectuals, since Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) introduced social insurance legislation of the 1880s. This phrase did not imply approval of these measures, but, rather, recognition that the explicit intention of Bismarck's legislation was less redistribution and reduction of poverty than ensuring the adherence to the newly formed German state of (mainly male) vitally important blue-collar workers. The term came to be more widely used in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, as a term of abuse by conservative critics of the social welfare reforms of the Weimar Republic. It appears to have been brought into English discourse in the early 1930s by the philosopher Alfred Zimmern (1879–1957), who used it in a favorable sense to differentiate modern liberal democracies from the "warfare state" of Hobbesian political theory and the illiberal states forming in Europe at this time. Welfare state gained wider currency in Britain during World War II, when it was used by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple (1881–1944), to describe the social reforms then advocated by Christian socialists. It did not enter popular usage until the general election of 1950, when it was revived, again as a term of abuse, by right-wing Conservatives to describe the social reforms of the Labour governments of 1945–1951. These governments did not describe themselves as creating a welfare state, despite their subsequent strong association with the term. Only when their reforms were under attack did it become a popular term of approval adopted by the Labour Party itself.

The term welfare state has also been widely associated also with William Beveridge (1879–1963), whose 1942 report to government, Social Insurance and Allied Services, was credited with inspiring Labour's postwar measures. Beveridge, however, disliked the term, which he associated with an all-providing "Santa Claus state" of which he was critical. He preferred to refer to the "social service state," which he saw as giving priority to duties over rights, above all the duty to be self-supporting as far as possible, implying reciprocity between recipients of services and the state; and also implying a duty on the better off to help the less privileged, mainly through voluntary action. Similarly, Richard Titmuss (1907–1973), the leading British intellectual of postwar British social welfare, used the term cautiously (note the quotation marks in the title of his 1958 publication Essays on "The Welfare State") and was critical of a mistaken "stereotype or image of an all pervasive Welfare State for the Working Classes" that he believed emerged in Britain in the 1950s. The image, he feared, was serving to disguise the inadequacies of social welfare provision in postwar Britain and the fact that it had, he believed, been constructed in such a way as to preserve social divisions, due to the retention of means-testing, the survival of a substantial private sector, and because it was insufficiently redistributive.

Nevertheless, from the 1950s, welfare state firmly entered the language of politicians, voters, and academics as describing an important characteristic of the postwar state, not only in Britain, but, to varying degrees, in other liberal European states. Nation-states had come to define as essential aspects of their role the prevention of absolute deprivation and ensuring, at least to some degree, an adequate standard of living for their citizens. They devoted a substantial proportion of government expenditure to services designed for these purposes. The label appears to have been readily embraced in the Nordic countries, especially in Sweden, which came rapidly to stand as the paradigm case of a highly developed welfare state. Elsewhere it continued to provoke unease. In Germany, Wohlfahrtstaat still carried echoes of Bismarckian absolutist paternalism. The concept of a modern, democratic Sozialstaat was preferred. In France L'Etat providence never became common currency for the centralized, highly regulated social provisions of the postwar republics. There appears to be no term in Italian; political scientists refer to Il Welfare State.

Within what are broadly described as welfare states, priorities for expenditure and forms of provision have varied from country to country and over time. In all European countries, social insurance is a core welfare activity of the state, but it is not the only one. Sociological models of the welfare state (for example, those developed by Gøsta Esping-Andersen) have tended to overstate the importance of social insurance and to understate the great variety of services included in the definition of state welfare: food stamps, free school meals, home nurses, subsidized transport and day-care centers for older people, probation officers, free or subsidized legal services, the regulation of working hours, wages, and conditions, and much more. Whereas social insurance tended to become universal, many of these services were targeted upon those in greatest need. Social insurance, education, health, and housing are all essential to human welfare, and all European states contribute to the regulation and funding of all of them, to variable degrees and in variable ways. Britain, for example, was unusual among non-communist countries in having, from the 1920s to the 1980s, a substantial housing sector directly owned by public, local authorities. In other countries housing was subsidized from public funds, but not publicly owned. The French state, for example, built or subsidized 90 percent of all housing built in France between 1945 and 1970 but it was managed by a variety of mainly nonprofit institutions, many of them cooperatives. These important areas of state welfare activity cannot be discussed in detail here.


Until the later nineteenth century in most European countries, assistance to the poor was delivered through variable combinations of publicly (normally locally) funded poor relief and nongovernmental voluntary action, often organized by religious bodies. The level and coverage of such support was variable and was least in the poorest countries and regions. It could provide benefits in cash or in kind (food, clothing, shelter, health care) in the community or in institutions, such as hospitals, almshouses, and orphanages. During the twentieth century, nation-states to greater or lesser degrees regulated or took over these activities from localities and nongovernmental organizations in order to enhance and to equalize provision across societies. Funding and control came to be most heavily vested in the central state in countries under communist rule. In most other states, many services continued to be devolved to local and/or voluntary or nonprofit bodies that were, again to variable degrees, subsidized and regulated by the state.

Everywhere, however, before and during the twentieth century, the primary source of welfare for most people in need was the family. Female members of the family, in particular, were the first line of defense in most situations, and despite a strong mythology of family decline, remain so. At all times, to the present, older people without close relatives, for example, have been more likely to be admitted to institutions than those with families. As state welfare institutions developed in the twentieth century, most European countries took for granted and depended heavily upon unpaid—and only occasionally and minimally subsidized—care, mainly though not exclusively by women, for old, infirm, disabled, and physically and mentally ill people. This was most extreme and explicit in southern Europe, but it was nowhere absent. In the early 1990s, the value of such caring in United Kingdom was valued at ¢39.1 billion, or 7.5 percent of national income.


The reasons for the growth of state welfare activity in the twentieth century were not simply growing humanitarianism and concern about deprivation. Broader political pressures and priorities everywhere guided state welfare policies. They expanded in step with mass democracy as, over the first half of the twentieth century, full adult franchise became almost universal in Europe. An increasingly unionized workforce, strengthened by the vote, campaigned with some success for shorter working hours, minimum wages, protection from unfair dismissal, and much more. As women gained the vote, they campaigned vigorously for expanded welfare states and especially for improved provision for health care and other services for women and children, with considerable success in bringing such issues onto government agendas. Whereas social insurance schemes have tended to be biased toward fully employed men, health and other social services have been less gender- and age-biased, indeed have tended to give more to women, the very old, and the very young, all of whom have normally been overrepresented among the poorest. Such services have also relied heavily upon female paid labor.

State welfare activity expanded notably quickly where Social Democratic governments were in power, as in Sweden from the 1930s, in Germany after World War I, and in Britain after World War II. Political citizenship led directly to social citizenship as voters used their voting power to improve social conditions and governments recognized the need to integrate the expanded electorate. This meant integrating not only the poorest or even just blue-collar workers, but increasingly also the fast-growing lower middle classes who could not afford to provide adequate education, health care, or for other needs from modest salaries and on whose votes all governments depended. And it was increasingly recognized that better-off taxpayers would more readily support state welfare if they also benefited. Hence welfare states began in the early twentieth century by targeting the poorest, grew to become more—though never completely—universal after World War II, then sought, not always successfully, to revert to targeting in the final two decades of the century. Even then, the greatly expanded middle classes of Europe still could not all afford from their own incomes the high costs of the greatly improved health, education, and housing standards of the time.

If the growth of welfare states was in part a response to the extension of political citizenship, they also helped to define full citizenship. In most countries, welfare benefits and services above the most basic level were from the beginning available only to naturalized full citizens of the country. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, definitions of citizenship were often expansive or vague. In Britain, for example, everyone born within the vast British Empire was entitled to full British citizenship and to the rather limited rights that came with it. As the rights available expanded to include an increasing range of benefits, definitions of eligibility for full citizenship were progressively narrowed everywhere to increase barriers against immigrants to the state in question. However, citizens of the countries of the European Union acquired defined, though limited, rights to welfare benefits in EU countries other than their own.

War also promoted state welfare. Provision expanded in many countries after World War I and in most during and/or after World War II, regardless of political control (for example, in Italy under Liberal governments in 1917–1920 and in Britain under a Liberal/Conservative coalition in the same years). To some extent, this can be seen as an aspect of citizenship: states provided additional personal security for citizens on whose support and morale the war effort depended and as a reward for that effort. Post–World War I welfare in Britain, Italy, and Germany was later cut back with the onset of the Depression. The sheer length and depth of the slump, however, meant that by the mid-1930s it was creating its own pressures for states of all political complexions to plan for economic and social reconstruction, plans that mainly bore fruit during and after the war. Also in the interwar years, the League of Nations, in particular through its agency the International Labour Office, encouraged member states to improve standards of health, welfare, and worker protection, for example from 1916 seeking member signatures to the Washington Convention guaranteeing working mothers six weeks' leave after childbirth.

Wars reminded nation-states of their physical vulnerability. From the beginning of the century, welfare measures were initiated with the aims of increasing birth and survival rates and of improving the physical fitness of actual and potential workers, fighters, and mothers. This was most explicit in France, where awareness of its exceptionally low birthrate was acute in the early years of the century. From 1904, each departement was enabled to provide a maternity home with qualified medical attendance; in 1913 a small subsidy was provided for poor women in the final month of pregnancy and for the first two years of the child's life. In 1914, means-tested assistance was given to large, poor families whether male or female headed, and tax relief for each child was provided for better-off families, as it was in Britain in 1913. In Britain, concern about the poor physical state of volunteers to fight in the South African (Anglo-Boer) War (1899–1902), combined with a falling birthrate and high infant mortality rate, led to the first measures to provide free meals for needy schoolchildren, in 1906; free medical inspection then treatment of state schoolchildren, in 1908 and 1912; and maternity benefits for the wives of workers, and the very few female workers who were in the national insurance scheme, in 1911. These fears recurred in World War I and throughout the interwar years. Supported by campaigns by women's organizations, they led to increased state funded provision for child and maternal welfare in Britain from 1918.

Women in many countries campaigned for improved health and welfare services and for family allowances, which were introduced, with highly variable levels and coverage, in Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Hungary, and Norway by 1939 and in Britain, Finland, Ireland, Romania, the Soviet Union, and some Swiss cantons by 1945. There was a lively debate internationally between proponents of family allowances and those who argued that targeted services were a more effective means of reducing deprivation, between women who saw the allowances as rewards for women working unpaid in the home and politicians who saw them as incentives to increase birthrates.

Provision for women and children improved in many countries between the wars, as ever for very variable motives. From 1927, Fascist Italy broke with the tradition of abandoning unmarried mothers and their children to stigmatizing treatment by the church with legislation protecting the rights of children in the care of wet nurses, foundling homes, orphanages, and reformatories, most of them run by the church. The government of Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) also promoted benefits for mothers and children and tax and cash allowances and services for large families, although all of these measures were limited by inadequate finance. At the same time, women's opportunities to work outside the home were severely restricted. These measures were driven by the desire to regenerate the Italian race and increase the birthrate, as were similar measures in Nazi Germany. The Nazis increased government investment in health and welfare centers, maternity benefits, income tax allowances for dependent children, and marriage loans, which were not repayable by couples who produced four or more children, a measure also introduced by the left-wing Popular Front government in 1939. The authoritarian nationalist governments in Spain and Portugal introduced similar pro-natalist incentives in the 1930s and, like the Nazis, excluded Jews, gypsies, and others from these welfare measures.


Such concerns were less acute after World War II, when birthrates rose again throughout Europe for reasons not evidently connected with consciously pro-natalist social welfare. The postwar priorities, rather, were to prevent recurrence of the political and economic crises of the interwar years and, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, to prove the superior capacity of the two competing world ideologies to deliver high living standards. Everywhere, high standards of health care, education, and social services were seen as essential to achieving fit, highly skilled, well-motivated workers and citizens. Welfare expenditure was regarded as complementary to economic growth rather than as inimical to it, as was to be asserted by critics of welfare states in the 1980s. The 1950s to 1970s was the golden age of the classic European welfare states, when in most countries the range of publicly provided and subsidized services, benefits, and institutions grew as never before, often on the basis of wartime plans and initiatives. In all countries, however, nongovernmental institutions of varying kinds—including the family and both profit-making and not-for-profit organizations—worked with and alongside nation-states for the delivery of welfare.

Sweden took the opportunity of neutrality and prosperity during World War II to catapult itself to the forefront of European welfare states. For a decade from 1938, reports and recommendations poured out that were implemented after the war, so that from the 1950s Sweden became the paradigm welfare state with high levels and standards of services and taxation. The other Nordic countries recovered more slowly from the war, but from the 1960s their small size and prosperity enabled them to provide high standards of services. Norway especially after the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1960s was best able to withstand the economic downturn of the 1970s and continued to provide a high standard of services through the end of the twentieth century.

IN THE 1970S AND 1980S

In most countries, welfare spending rose steadily until the 1970s. In Britain, for example, total government expenditure on social services and benefits, education, and health rose from the beginning of the century, reached 30 percent of GDP in 1955, 45 percent in 1977, 50 percent in 1989, and about 55 percent at the end of the century. Comparisons across countries are difficult due to varying methods of compiling statistics, but the broad pattern has been similar across Western Europe, with expenditure in most countries rising especially fast until the 1970s. The international economic crisis of the mid-1970s led most nation-states in the 1980s to reassess their commitment to welfare expenditure, to seek to cut it, and to transfer the responsibility either to individuals to purchase provision in the private market, and/or to the nongovernmental sector. In particular, they sought to minimize universal benefits and to target public expenditure on the poorest. Governments had varying degrees of success in achieving these goals. Where right-wing governments had clear majorities, as in the United Kingdom and Denmark, they could be most effective, especially in cutting benefits and services targeted at the low-income minority, such as social housing in the United Kingdom and social security benefits in Denmark. They were less successful in cutting services that benefited most of the community and that were expensive for individuals to purchase in the market, in particular health care. States had taken over many welfare responsibilities in the first place in order to compensate for gaps and inefficiencies in the market. Many of these remained. Even where attempts to refocus state welfare regimes had some success, as in Britain, they did not necessarily lead to cuts in total government social expenditure, above all because the economic crisis led to high levels of unemployment and no government could risk the potentially explosive effects of neglecting millions of unemployed people. At the same time, rising life expectancy throughout Europe increased the costs of health care and social services for the growing numbers of older people, a high proportion of whom were poor and whose needs could not be ignored. Rates of marriage breakdown also increased from the 1970s, often leaving mothers and children in need and dependent on state support.

Overall, in Western, especially northwestern Europe, the postwar welfare states narrowed the gap between rich and poor and provided a safety net that prevented the poorest falling too far behind average living standards, which improved rapidly between the 1950s and the 1970s. The modifications to these welfare states that followed in the 1980s and 1990s drove holes through the safety net and the gap between rich and poor widened again, to varying degrees in different countries. From the 1970s the European Union, which previously had paid more attention to economic than to social policy, sought to take on the role of reducing social and regional inequalities within the Union by funding regional development and setting standards of social protection to which member states were enjoined to conform. Such standards cannot be enforced, and the British government has been especially reluctant to follow European guidance, for example in the area of employee protection, so that by the end of the century British workers had fewer rights than others in northwestern Europe. But by proposing a model of good practice, the European Union, like the League of Nations before it, put pressure on governments, encouraged those seeking reform, and offered guidance on how to achieve it.


Patterns of expenditure and provision in the communist-ruled countries are still more difficult to assess accurately due to inadequacies in the available data. In these states, governments took full responsibility to provide for all welfare needs, often through the medium of business undertakings. The extent of state provision grew steadily in the Soviet Union from 1917 and in the states that came under communist control after World War II. All of them by the 1970s had sound provision of health care, education, and other essential services, including for child care, covering their entire populations. The communist countries also struggled to finance social provision from the 1970s, and the decay of their social and economic infrastructures was one reason for their collapse from 1989. Since 1989, former communist countries have followed the rest of Europe, often under pressure from international organizations on whom they depended for their reconstruction, in particular the World Bank, in seeking more selective targeting of state expenditure and greater reliance on the market. To a greater extent than in Western Europe this appears, especially in the former Soviet Union, to have led to increased poverty and reduced access to services among those unable to participate in the labor market, such as older and disabled people.


In the countries of southern Europe that were under authoritarian control from the 1930s through the 1970s (Spain, Portugal, Greece), health and welfare services were weakly developed before the 1970s, with such tasks left primarily to voluntary, mainly religious but also labor- and employer-run, institutions and to the family. The latter was believed to be more resilient than in northern Europe. In consequence, much of the responsibility for providing welfare fell upon unpaid women. Similar patterns were evident in Italy between the end of Fascist rule and the 1970s. Government plans for universalist social welfare in Italy were defeated after World War II, as after World War I, by a combination of industrialists, the Church, and the liberal professions.

In the mid-1990s, family benefits and services still cost only 0.8 percent of GDP in Portugal, 0.2 percent in Spain, 0.8 percent in Italy, and 0.1 percent in Greece, compared with a European Community average of 3.5 percent. Social insurance, targeted at key workers, was more prominent in these generally less developed state welfare systems. None of them developed effective national health care systems until the 1970s, when all four countries introduced universal systems on the model of the British National Health Service. They felt under pressure to conform to some degree to standards prevailing elsewhere in the European Union. Also, all had left of center governments at some point in the 1970s. Their economies were expanding and the larger numbers of urbanized, more affluent, men and women demanded modern welfare provision. The outcomes were uneven, due not least to the international economic situation in the 1970s and to the existence of a large but not necessarily efficient private sector, which continued to thrive due to the inadequacies of the public sector and was encouraged, as elsewhere, by governments due to the economic situation and the international reaction against high levels of welfare spending. Health care expenditure as a proportion of GDP in Spain, Greece, and Portugal was among the lowest in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in the 1990s. Of the three, it was highest in Spain at 7 percent. Public housing and housing subsidies were also less developed in these countries than elsewhere in Western Europe.

The one country of northern Europe, which was similarly poor, largely rural, and Roman Catholic, with a similarly severely limited, nonuniversal welfare system, heavily dependent upon the contribution of the family, particularly women, and often punitive church-run institutions, was the Republic of Ireland. In Ireland also, a free and universal health care system was introduced for the first time in the 1970s. Thereafter, economic success, which owed much to membership in the European Union, led to steady improvement in most forms of welfare provision, though at the end of the century it still lagged behind much of northwest Europe.

See alsoBeveridge, William; Old Age; Public Health; Social Insurance.


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Pat Thane