The Welfare State

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Steven M. Beaudoin

Gone are the days when social history could be described as history with the politics left out. Social historians today are just as concerned with politics and state structures as they are with the material conditions of daily life. Indeed, those who would attempt an analysis of such pillars of social history as working-class protest or childhood would soon discover that such issues are inexorably tied to the state. This is particularly true of any study of poverty in modern society. The welfare state has thus become a central concern of social historians, who study its social, economic, and ideological roots; its role in shaping class relations and gender ideals; its economic consequences; and the strategies it fosters among the recipients of assistance. In fact, given the institutional nature of the welfare state, state, local, and private relief agency archives offer rich sources of information for social historians. In this way, the welfare state has become a staple of European social history.

If the welfare state's place in the study of history is easy to determine, the same cannot be said of its definition. For many scholars, the welfare state is the combination of government programs designed to assist the needy. By providing such services as housing, monetary assistance, and health care, these programs assure a level of subsistence below which no citizen should fall. Other scholars, however, adopt actuarial concepts and define the welfare state as the set of policies devised to redistribute risk. In a capitalist society, they argue, welfare comprises the insurance programs that protect citizens against the hardships that might result from periods of economic inactivity like those caused by illness, unemployment, and old age. Some even argue that education is part of the welfare state, for it prepares recipients for a productive work life. For all that they differ, these divergent views share at least one element: they all revolve around the issue of security. For the purposes of this essay, the welfare state includes those programs and policies forged with the goal of easing life's insecurities, from elite fears of beggars to working-class anxieties over industrial accidents. This definition underlies a history of the welfare state that begins with sixteenth-century attempts to rationalize relief and prohibit begging, and ends with early-twenty-first-century programs of national health insurance and family allocations.


Beginning roughly with the sixteenth century, secular authorities throughout Europe began to take a more active interest in poor relief, resulting in efforts to rationalize, professionalize, and bureaucratize systems of assistance. While historians previously argued that such concerns were the result of Protestant theology's rejection of good works as a means to salvation, current work indicates that some secularization also occurred in Catholic states, although an upsurge in piety and charitable giving following the Council of Trent (1545–1563) limited the rate of centralization and rationalization. The breakdown of older religious institutions, the decline of traditional private sources of security, such as the local community, the growth of state bureaucracies in general, and the social and economic consequences of an emerging commercial economy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries all appear now to be more likely causes of this transformation in welfare provision. Marxist historians, in particular, have seized upon the last development, linking poor relief reform to a rising mercantile economy. By allowing urban elites to regulate the supply of labor, new systems of assistance formed an important bridge in the European transition to capitalism. Another group of scholars, who base their work primarily on the rise of new institutions, such as the hôpital-général established in Paris in 1656, emphasize the reformers' desires to promote certain ideals and social order by enclosing social marginals.

Like the causes, the results of new concerns with poor relief varied enormously. In the Flemish city of Ypres, for example, a 1525 poor law charged a new committee of four civil supervisors with the regulation of individual parish committees, which in turn visited recipients' homes, collected alms, and managed the poor box established in every church. In an accommodation with existing charitable institutions, the new board of supervisors also centralized the collection of gifts in a "common chest" and redistributed them to various establishments throughout the city. At the same time, legal begging was strictly curtailed. While such reforms won the praise of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558), his support did not result in similar measures throughout his domains. In Spain, political, economic, and social structures conspired to slow the pace of, if not prohibit, centralization and rationalization. The more firmly entrenched religious institutions, which had traditionally overseen charity, and the fiscal weakness of the state throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, made the establishment of more expensive, secular charity boards almost impossible. Only a handful of cities, such as Zamora, followed the lead of Ypres and other early modern Catholic urban centers.

England lies on the other side of the spectrum as the only European state to implement successfully a national system of relief founded on a set of acts, passed in 1598 and 1601, known as the Elizabethan Poor Law. This legislation prohibited begging, made parish poor rates mandatory, and rationalized the delivery of aid by empowering overseers of the poor and justices of the peace to determine eligibility and regulate distribution. The implementation of the Speenhamland system in 1795 extended relief to those whose wages fell below a certain level, on the basis of the price of bread and family size. Commercial wealth, historians argue, rested at the heart of such a comprehensive system of relief.

The impact of these reforms on the poor themselves seems to have been limited, except, of course, in England, where the Speenhamland system not only expanded the rolls of recipients, but also increased the number of men among those who sought assistance—a category heretofore almost completely composed of women. Throughout the rest of Europe, however, the poor were left to devise strategies that included kin networks and informal and unofficial alms, as well as new institutions created by elite reformers. In short, the new establishments and systems that emerged from efforts to centralize and rationalize poor relief did not replace older measures; they only expanded the options.


In many respects, the French Revolution represents the apex of this movement to secularize and rationalize poor relief. The Revolution nearly destroyed the old system of aid by nationalizing the Church's property, by taking away the financial basis of religious poor relief, and by firmly establishing the right of all French citizens to government assistance if unable to work. Unfortunately, the various programs that revolutionaries constructed were impossible to implement in the midst of war and civil unrest. In matters of social welfare, then, the Revolution's legacy was little more than a contentious debate over the roles of the state and of private charity. From this time forward, social welfare became linked to questions of state obligation and citizens' rights. State-mandated and organized assistance was equated with the radical politics that had burdened Europe with more than two decades of war.

In the Revolution's wake, laissez-faire capitalism and other tenets of classical liberalism began to hold greater sway than early modern arguments for greater state involvement. According to most classical liberals, the state had no right to violate private property in order to effect a redistribution of wealth. Individuals alone were responsible for their livelihoods and, through thrift and foresight, for preparation for the vagaries of illness and old age. A legislated system of social welfare would only serve to instill a sense of entitlement among the working class that would destroy the moral fabric of the nation. This principle did not preclude all state assistance, but rather restricted it to assistance for the truly needy, those whose plight moved the collective heart of the nation. Increasingly, however, the line drawn between the truly needy and the "undeserving" poor included fewer and fewer people as worthy of help. Poverty, many classical liberals maintained, was not the product of economic insecurity, but of moral failings. During much of the nineteenth century, then, public assistance became stingier and more punitive in nature.

The result was a retrenchment of state aid throughout much of Europe. In early-nineteenth-century Hamburg, for example, the burghers responded to economic instability, a growing population of laboring poor, and the upheavals of Napoleonic warfare by cutting back on the more generous assistance available as late as the 1790s. The 1817 regulations for the Allgemeine Armenanstalt, or General Poor Relief Agency, restricted state aid only to the registered poor, and even these services, like medical care and weekly alms, were reduced. Relief officers rephrased their mission to include the alleviation of poverty, not its prevention, as the city had once defined it. Accompanying this shift was an emphasis on volunteerism. The state pared down its responsibilities and left private charity to fill the gap. As the historian Mary Lindemann noted in Patriots and Paupers (1990), Hamburg's governors ceased to allow any sense of social conscience to shape state policies.

The same thing might be said of England's ruling elite. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 abolished outdoor relief for the able-bodied and their families by instituting the concepts of "less eligibility" and "the workhouse test." Those who could work were placed in workhouses and segregated from the "worthy" poor, such as orphans, the aged, and the insane. At the same time, elected guardians under the supervision of a central Poor Law Commission replaced informal parish vestries as poor-relief administrators. With these measures, reformers hoped to bring uniformity to English public assistance while ensuring that relief did not damage the economy by artificially raising free-market wages.

Perhaps nowhere is the shift from increasing state involvement to its near absence more evident than in Russia. In 1775, Catherine the Great reformed provincial government to create provincial social welfare boards charged with establishing new institutions of public assistance, such as almshouses and orphanages. Though these boards failed to stimulate a civic spirit among her subjects, as Catherine had hoped, they did become significant contributors to the social welfare of Russian peasants before emancipation. With emancipation in 1861, however, Russian public assistance virtually disappeared, a casualty of limited powers of taxation, political fears of excessive local autonomy, and a resurgent belief that charity must be private and morally based.

By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, most European states had retreated from the realm of social welfare, causing some scholars to argue that it is not the rise of the welfare state that demands explanation, but this more puzzling gap in the long history of state assistance. Be that as it may, the end result was the same: poverty had become the domain of local governments and private institutions like charities and mutual aid societies. While charitable activity increased, becoming a symbol of middle-class gentility, especially among women, the poor themselves suffered both from want and the moralizing control of their social superiors. Many charities, for example, restricted assistance only to mothers and couples who could prove Christian marriage. Moreover, sufficient assistance became an accident of birth, for localized relief meant a highly unequal system of aid based upon residency. Paupers who could not prove long-term residency in a given city faced deportation to their native cities. As the century drew to a close, however, calls for enhanced state services increased. By the 1870s, Europe was poised to undergo yet another shift in state support for social welfare.


The final decades of the nineteenth century witnessed a growing concern with social welfare and state functions. Grouped under the more general problem known to contemporaries as "the social question," poverty seemed at the base of Europe's many difficulties, from working-class protest to degeneration. The rise of such attention was evident not only in the reams of paper used to disseminate a wide array of opinions on the subject, but also in the public and private actions devised to address these concerns. Much of this activity sprang from bourgeois anxiety over socialist politics and working-class radicalism, which began to express itself in a growing number of strikes as well as at the polls. To many observers, municipal and private charity was no longer sufficient to deal with the vagaries of a maturing industrial economy, all too evident in the depression that began in 1873 and lasted well into the 1890s. Only the central state, many argued, could support a more comprehensive system of assistance. Moreover, in the context of social Darwinism, the state was said to have a duty to protect the nation from racial decadence and deterioration, a decline that was said to be clearly evident in a number of social studies conducted in working-class slums throughout Europe.

Although most of Europe's elite shared this sense of fear and dread, their answers to those anxieties were far from uniform. New programs and policies were shaped as much by state structures, political considerations, and previous social welfare measures as they were by concern with riot and national decline. In the history of German social welfare, for example, historians have typically emphasized a long tradition of Prussian etatism to explain the innovative social insurance programs that the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) ushered through the new Reichstag between 1883 and 1889. These measures differed significantly from previous forms of poor relief because they were founded upon contributory systems of social insurance. The 1883 compulsory program against workers' illness pooled workers' and employers' contributions to fund up to thirteen weeks of relief, which in 1903 was extended to twenty-six weeks. An 1884 law insuring workers against workplace accidents operated in a similar fashion. Finally, the pension law of 1889, financed by employers, workers, and state subsidies, provided workers a small pension if they reached seventy years of age.

While this legislation was indeed innovative, particularly in its obligatory nature, these programs did not completely eschew earlier traditions of social welfare. The bourgeois principle of self-help remained the central tenet of social welfare, and German workers contributed the lion's share for their own insurance. Moreover, whenever possible, older institutions, such as mutual aid societies, retained a place within the newer state structure. In fact, social insurance did not supplant municipal and private charity, which remained the primary sources of assistance for the indigent, especially women and children. Finally, the laws benefited only industrial workers. By 1913, only 14.5 million workers received insurance out of a population of approximately 65 million.

These limitations, according to many historians, serve only to highlight the conservative political intent behind them. Bismarck designed these first steps toward the modern welfare state with the goal of wooing the working class away from the powerful German Social Democratic Party. His social welfare policies, according to this view, were an exercise in authoritarian state-building, nothing more. However, George Steinmetz (1993) has offered a new interpretation of German social welfare, including in his study similar reforms in poor-relief legislation that also date from the last decades of the nineteenth century. In an interpretation reminiscent of studies of early modern welfare, Steinmetz argues that the programs instituted under Bismarck promoted a bourgeois strategy of capitalist development, which included the creation and maintenance of a free labor market. Moreover, middle-class reformers constructed this system over the objections of conservative Junkers. According to Steinmetz, the development of German social welfare owes more to bourgeois economic needs and political clout than to an authoritarian state with traditional agrarian support.

Regardless of the motives that spawned them, the three measures that formed the core of German social welfare also served as a model for reformers throughout Europe. States as diverse as Norway, Spain, and Holland all established insurance against accidents in the 1890s, while Austria and Italy reinforced similar programs with sickness insurance and old-age pensions, respectively. Frequently, however, similar programs took very different organizational forms, particularly in Scandinavia. In Denmark, for example, a set of measures created between 1891 and 1907 established the outlines of what one scholar has labeled the "solidaristic" welfare state. The 1898 Accident Insurance Act covered only wage earners, and under the Sickness Insurance Reform of 1892, sickness insurance remained voluntary and rested on a base of sickness funds and mutual aid societies, funded by participant contributions but also subsidized by the state. There was significant innovation in the realms of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance, a new type of safeguard. The Old Age Relief Act of 1891 established a right to pensions drawn from a fund financed by taxes, not worker contributions. These pensions were offered to all indigents over sixty years of age. Unemployment insurance followed the same principles as sickness insurance. It was voluntary and, although subsidized by the state, relied on participant contributions.

These innovations highlight the different sources of social welfare reform in Europe; Denmark's social insurance programs were the result of social and political compromise among the most important political parties, the Social Democrats on one side and the Agrarian Liberals and Conservatives on the other. The Radical Liberals, who represented both rural smallholders and urban intellectuals, officially organized in 1905 around a program of greater state involvement and acted as important mediators among opposing groups before and after their formation as an independent party. Danish social insurance thus rested on a foundation of peasant-liberalism and consensus, essential ingredients to later reforms.

In Britain, reforms fell somewhere between the German and Nordic models. An 1897 Workmen's Compensation Law provided employer-paid insurance for workplace accidents, while a 1908 Old Age Pension Act established pensions for the indigent over seventy years of age. As in Denmark, old-age pensions were supported by a general tax fund, not worker contributions. The inclusion of this measure precipitated a constitutional crisis that culminated in the substantial weakening of the House of Lords. Liberal and Labour politicians followed up this new policy the following year with the establishment of Trade Boards, which were empowered to end "sweated labor" by setting minimum wages in various trades, a list that grew with time. Finally, the 1911 National Insurance Act capped this period of vigorous reform with programs for both sickness and unemployment insurance. This last bill was the product of significant compromise, however. Sickness and unemployment insurance was contributory and compulsory, but only for certain classes of workers. Health insurance affected only manual workers and those earning less than 160 pounds annually. Moreover, only the insured worker received medical assistance, not his family. Mutual aid societies and private insurers also received special attention; approved societies retained a central role in dispensing medical assistance. As for unemployment insurance (Part II of the National Insurance Act), legislators limited this experimental program to only a small group of relatively well-paid trades that suffered from periodic unemployment, such as iron-founding, shipbuilding, and construction.

As in Germany, then, new social programs added significantly to older relief institutions, but did not supersede them. Private charitable associations like the Charity Organisation Society retained a significant role in social welfare, a role they sought to enhance through cooperation with new state institutions. In fact, a growing number of historians now argue that European politicians designed their programs to complement voluntary organizations. The rise of the welfare state was not a complete break with the past, it was a gradual transformation. Nowhere was this more evident than in France.

The history of French social welfare has long suffered from the belief that little occurred to rival German and Scandinavian innovation. In the realm of maternal and pronatalist welfare, however, France took the lead among industrialized nations. By 1914 the French government had spent millions of francs establishing regional centers for prenatal care, a family allowance program awarding assistance to needy families with four or more children, and legislation granting women compensation for prenatal and postpartum leaves from employment. Yet in other forms of social welfare, French assistance remained traditional, eschewing social insurance for poor relief. Despite extremely limited programs, such as insurance for work-related accidents, legislated in 1899, and old-age pensions for workers, instituted in 1910, the vast majority of French citizens continued to rely only on poor relief, which remained municipal and heavily dependent on private charity.

While the 1893 legislation granting free medical assistance to the indigent and the 1905 system of pensions for the elderly indigent decreed rights to assistance based upon citizenship, they relied almost completely on municipal and departmental funding and organization. In response, most cities increased their reliance on private charities. Between 1870 and 1914, for example, municipal subsidies to private charities in Bordeaux increased by 230 percent. In essence, then, France trod a middle path between earlier clasically liberal dependence on municipal assistance and private charity on the one hand, and the social insurance schemes of its northern neighbors on the other. This curious development arose from French concepts of the state and citizenship. Against the historical backdrop of the French Revolution, politicians were reluctant to establish new rights to assistance that would entail the creation of a vast bureaucracy. They therefore, limited a citizen's right to relief and made such rights municipal obligations. However, overriding concerns over falling birth rates and degeneracy convinced these same leaders to be inventive with maternal and pronatalist welfare. Moreover, they could fit such innovations into their political ideologies by reminding themselves that women and children were not true citizens. In short, the delicate relationship between citizens and their state was not altered by assistance for women and children. Consensus on these measures was thus much easier to attain in the cantankerous arena of French politics. The end result was a system of social welfare less out of place among the other European states than previously believed.

The decades before World War I thus witnessed some startling innovations in social welfare. Having relinquished a role in such matters during the early years of the nineteenth century, most European states now played a prominent role not only in providing assistance, but also in the reconceptualization of social welfare. Few social insurance schemes relied exclusively on workers' contributions. State subsidies now supplemented traditional reliance on self-help. At the same time, proponents of social welfare spoke in terms of citizens' rights and state obligation, not voluntary relief. Even more important, programs that depended on general tax funds and not members' contributions, like the British and Danish pension plans, introduced limited measures of income redistribution, not just the redistribution of risk enforced in compulsory social insurance programs. The outlines of the modern welfare state were clearly visible in these developments. But those who benefited remained relatively few in number.

New programs affected mainly factory workers, leaving artisans, shopkeepers, and rural workers to rely on charity. Moreover, those who were not consistently part of the labor pool, particularly women, benefited little if any. In fact, women's relationship to the budding welfare state was dominated by the rhetoric of maternalism. Women deserved assistance only because their continued reproduction was central to the nation's future. As a result, women did not figure into social insurance as workers; more often than not they entered onto welfare rolls as dependents, ineligible for equal benefits. Ironically, while many welfare programs thus recognized the importance of women's reproductive labor, male politicians simultaneously refused to equate it with the productive labor of men, which received higher remunerative value both on and off the job. These shortcomings would become evident in the decades after the World War I, though real change would come only after World War II, if at all.


The devastation of World War I demonstrated to all concerned just how inadequate welfare reform before 1914 had been. Yet few major breakthroughs were forthcoming. Instead, the reforms implemented during the interwar years merely extended insurance programs to additional categories of workers without altering basic assumptions and structures. Despite new social insurance legislation in France in 1928 and 1930, most workers remained uninsured. By the mid 1930s approximately 10 million workers—those whose wages fell below an established minimum—were eligible for a host of private and public insurance funds paid for by worker and employer contributions. In Denmark, the Great Social Reform of 1933 was more a rationalization and reorganization of earlier measures than a bold new step in a different direction. Danes could choose between active and passive membership in funds, and, despite the government's renewed commitment to universal compulsory social insurance, the latter provided very little protection. The interwar welfare state also remained a gendered entity. The new fascist states of Italy and Germany implemented maternalist welfare measures to rebuild their populations, while forcing many women to leave better-paying jobs to be replaced by unemployed men. French politicians also extended family allowances, which would later become a mainstay of the French welfare state.

There were exceptions to the general lack of innovation in social welfare policy. Sweden, for example, began to secure a reputation for social welfare, which it would consolidate after 1945. Between 1933 and 1938, the Swedes implemented such programs as state-subsidized loans to newlyweds; maternity benefits for approximately 90 percent of all mothers, including free childbirth services; state subsidies to voluntary unemployment benefit societies; and low-interest housing loans for large families. In the new Soviet Union, too, social welfare underwent significant change. Soviet citizens were now entitled to full employment, daycare centers, and free medical care. But such new rights, and the freedoms they were meant to produce, existed more on paper than in reality. Unemployment gave way principally to small make-work programs, while free day care and communal responsibility quickly deteriorated, leaving only doubled workloads for women who entered factories while remaining responsible for the bulk of their family's daily upkeep.

When the hardships of the Great Depression struck in 1929, most European states responded by cutting back on welfare benefits. For most of Europe, it was only after World War II that the modern welfare state became reality. Although no consensus exists, many historians credit the war's varied impacts to explain this postwar expansion of social programs. Fascism's demise tarnished the traditional right and promoted the rise of new political forces, most prominently, the Christian Democrats, that did not oppose state-supported social welfare. Parties on the left also gained increased stature from their participation in resistance movements and wartime coalition governments. One argument holds that, especially in Britain, the privations of war also returned a sense of community to war-torn populations that made the redistribution of risk and income more acceptable after 1945. Perhaps most important, the postwar years witnessed the rise of a new consumer economy in which large retailers overwhelmed the small shop owners, who had long been foes of social insurance. More middle-class families, now tied to the fortunes of large corporations, acknowledged the benefits of an extended system of social welfare that would include them. Throughout Europe, then, the basic outlines of what we now call the welfare state gradually emerged from the rubble of World War II.

In Eastern Europe, Soviet domination brought social programs modeled after Russia's, including state-supported housing, health care, and education. In Western Europe, Great Britain and the Scandinavian states led the way by creating social-insurance schemes that were compulsory and universal. In addition, contributory funding was replaced with a combination of flat-rate benefits, which guaranteed basic services to all citizens regardless of need, and supplementary programs designed to assist the needy. All of this required substantial state subsidies derived from increased tax revenues. Although many continental states like France and Germany did not immediately adopt similar measures, the basic outlines of the British and Scandinavian systems were implemented there later in the 1950s and 1960s, albeit with significant modifications rooted in earlier patterns of welfare development in each country.

Based largely on plans known as the Beveridge Report (1942), drawn up during the war by William Beveridge (1879–1963), the British welfare state made participation compulsory and benefits universal. British citizens paid flat-rate contributions and received flat-rate benefits. Since contributions had to be set low enough for the majority of British citizens, the state used tax revenue to supplement funding for such programs as National Health Insurance, implemented by 1948. The state also used tax monies to assist the needy with both housing and education costs, greatly altering the shape of British society.

It was in Sweden, however, that the true epitome of the welfare state arose after World War II. During these years a strong economy, the consolidation of the Social Democratic government, and administrative reforms dictated by wartime needs paved the way for a host of social programs. Between 1946 and 1959, Swedes created a social welfare system that combined universal flat-rate benefit programs for old-age pensions and child allowances with income-contingent programs for housing, health care, and supplementary pensions. The former guaranteed benefits to all citizens, while the latter replaced contributory schemes with means testing.

In 1963, the National Insurance Act coordinated most of these programs into three types of insurance: the health and parental insurance system, the basic pension system, and the national supplementary pension system. The first system provided benefits for medical and dental costs, as well as compensation for loss of income due to illness or childbirth and child care, including up to six months' leave to care for children under eight years of age (payable to either the father or mother since 1974). The basic pension system paid benefits to all retired or disabled Swedes, as well as family pensions for dependents that had lost a family provider. Finally, supplementary pensions were based on pensionable income earned before retirement, an income that had to be above a base amount but less than 7.5 times that same amount. In addition to this National Insurance, Sweden also maintained work injury and unemployment insurance programs. All of this was supplemented with public assistance for those whose needs were not adequately met by insurance. This entire system rested squarely on state funding through taxation, employer contributions, and interest income from special insurance funds. Swedes reinforced this commitment to social insurance in 1981 with the Social Services Act, designed to reduce the place of individually oriented means-tested programs for a greater reliance on general, structurally oriented programs that would protect individual privacy.

In both France and Germany, on the other hand, the immediate postwar years saw mainly the extension of social welfare along lines already established before 1945, particularly through the extension of contributory social insurance funds linked to separate classes and occupations. In France, the self-employed and white-collar middle managers opposed participation in a national social security system established in 1948, prompting the maintenance of numerous private funds. Ironically, when the petty bourgeoisie sought admission to the national pension system in the 1960s, it was the unions who now opposed the expansion of social welfare to include their poorer fellow citizens. In the end, the self-employed and white-collar middle managers won admission. A similar situation occurred in Germany, as wealthy artisans fought during the 1950s to retain a separate fund within the white-collar worker insurance system. In 1959, however, less-affluent artisans succeeded in joining their fund to the workers' pension insurance system over the objection of the Social Democrats. Soon after, various reforms in the 1960s gave France and Germany many of the trappings of the Scandinavian welfare states, including unemployment and health insurance for the entire population and a host of state agencies devoted to public health and social work. At the same time, early characteristics have not completely disappeared. Germany's welfare system remains quite corporatist in nature, while France's retains a significant role for a host of public and private insurance funds. Similarly, the system of family allowances that emerged before World War I and was later extended during the interwar years remains a central pillar of French social welfare. Payments are based on the number of children and are allotted to all French families. Such measures are designed to support population growth, not redistribute income.

The impact of the expansion of European social welfare cannot be overstated. The welfare state has fundamentally altered class relations as well as the relations between the citizenry and the state. While class distinctions clearly remain, the divisions have become less stark. Workers are now active participants in a consumer culture that they share with the middle class. Governments also claim a much greater role in what was previously defined as private life, particularly family life. Young families now raise their children with state assistance and remain free of the direct responsibility of caring for elderly relatives. Just how important the welfare state has become in the lives of most Europeans is evident in the response to growing demands from conservatives to curtail welfare spending. The welfare state entered a period of crisis in the late 1970s, as rising oil prices created stagflation. Near the turn of the century, concern over rising government debt was aggravated by an aging population and discontent with immigrant demands for the right to participate in social insurance and assistance programs. Yet the welfare state has not been abandoned. Indeed, government plans for austerity have been met with street demonstrations. While some governments, like Margaret Thatcher's (1925–) in Great Britain (1979–1990), have successfully withdrawn the state from various arenas of economic life through privatization, the basic outlines and institutions of the welfare state remain intact. Perhaps the greatest impact of the welfare state has thus been the recognition that the state does indeed have a vital interest in actively supporting the welfare of its citizens.


Social history has played an integral role in our understanding of the welfare state, particularly of its origins. Initially, two schools of thought emerged. The first, espoused primarily by marxist historians, depicted the welfare state as a set of measures designed to dull the sharp edges of capitalism and thus lure workers away from social revolution. Other historians, however, joined social scientists in presenting the growth of state-supported social welfare as a product of modernization. As western societies developed industrial economies, insecurity among the proletariat grew. So did their political voice. The end result was a state that responded to working-class interests with social insurance. These interpretations have not fared well under increased scrutiny. Later analysts discovered that the development of the welfare state owed as much to the demands of the petty bourgeoisie as to working-class radicalism. At the same time, other scholars began to emphasize the importance of state structures and political ideologies in shaping the contours of the welfare state. The end result has been a new social interpretation that highlights the fundamental roles of middle-class voters and their political ideologies. The welfare state grew earliest and strongest not only in those nations where the middle-class became convinced that it, too, could benefit from tax-funded programs to redistribute risk and income, but also in those countries where middle-class ideology did not prohibit a strong, interventionist state. The timing of welfare reforms depended on how soon each nation's bourgeoisie could be won over to these two arguments.

The particular shape and impacts of the welfare state have also proven fertile soil for social historians. This is especially true for those interested in gender and the family. Social insurance first grew out of contributory schemes that posited men as workers and women as dependents. And unions in many nations expressed little desire to see this pattern altered. In Britain, for example, unions linked social insurance to the concept of the family wage. Therefore, even after 1945, whether they worked or not, married women received lower benefits than men and unmarried female workers. British social welfare was thus built on a family model that envisioned married women as secondary sources of income, perpetuating a reliance on married women for part-time work. In other countries too, social welfare posited women as recipients of need-based relief and mothers' pensions, but not as full-fledged citizens. In France, on the other hand, politicians faced with depopulation recognized that married women would always remain integral members of the labor pool. The result was a social security system based on individual participation regardless of sex or marital status and a system of family allowances that rewarded all families for having children, including single mothers. This, many historians argue, played a significant role in the different paths English and French feminists chose later in the twentieth century, with British feminists taking a much more aggressive stance against the state.

Finally, social historians have begun to spend more time analyzing the transformation from reliance on private charity to the welfare state. While much work remains to be undertaken in this direction, current research already indicates that an easy distinction between public and private in the rise of the welfare state is untenable. Private charities often figured prominently in the plans of welfare reformers and remain integral parts of the welfare states that function today. In these and other ways, then, social history continues to add significantly to our understanding of the welfare state in Europe.

See alsoCharity and Poor Relief: The Early Modern Period; Charity and Poor Relief: The Modern Period (volume 3);The Family and the State; The Elderly (volume 4);Standards of Living (volume 5); and other articles in this section.


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