Thursday, 17 January 2013

The paradox of public opinion and welfare

I've just read this interesting piece in the journal Soundings about contributory welfare.  It's written by Graeme Cooke of the IPPR, with a response by Kate Bell and Declan Gaffney.  It comes at a time when the contributory principle - 'something for something' welfare - is enjoying a resurgence within certain centre-left circles.

This resurgence is largely because the centre-left is looking for a way to make welfare popular again.  And contribution is back in favour because of something I think we can call the 'paradox of public opinion'.

The paradox starts with the perception that many people don't like aspects of the welfare system.  In particular, they don't really like out-of-work benefits and - increasingly - certain universal payments.  Over several decades, and increasingly so at the moment, politicians (especially the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats) have interpreted this as a public demand for greater means-testing.  To focus the system on those who need support the most.  Subsequently, as 'demand' has risen for means-testing, the use of it has gone up in the benefits system.

However, for those on the centre-left, the greater use of means-testing reveals a difficult paradox in public opinion.  This is that although the way to placate public distaste with the welfare state appears to be to respond to it by means-testing, such a response ends up creating a vicious circle.  One where the feeding of public 'hunger' for welfare cuts only creates a larger appetite.  

For many on the left, reasserting the contributory principle offers a hope of reasserting support for the welfare state.  This is because means-testing concentrates social security on an ever decreasing group of people, meaning that the vital ingredients of public support for welfare are lost: self-interest and solidarity.  Contribution could - the argument goes - revitalise both ingredients: by widening the pool of people who benefit from the welfare state and by making welfare more reciprocal.


  1. Interesting stuff! Binds into much of the research that's been conducted here in Stockholm. I would say though that means-testing or not is not the only problem, it is also the actual benefit amounts. More encompassing systems tend to combine basic security with earnings related benefits, thus preventing middle class exit of the systems. This was, and to some extent is, the situation in Sweden. The problem now is that the benefit ceilings are too low, which have generated lower support for welfare benefits overall.

    I recommend the following article for a more comprehensive take:

    Walter Korpi & Joakim Palme - The Paradox of Redistribution and Strategies of Equality: Welfare State Institutions,
    Inequality, and Poverty in the Western Countries

    /Daniel Fredriksson

  2. Thanks for the reply Daniel! And I take your point about the link between support for welfare benefits and the real value of payments.

    My own take, on the UK perspective at least, is that I think politicians here mis-diagnose the problem. They interpret public hostility to the welfare state as a call to target benefits more exclusively on the poorest. But I think what the public hostility is really about is that many people don't feel they get anything out of a system into which they put a lot in, via taxes. Therefore, the solution is not targeting but ensuring the welfare state benefits more people.

    Thanks for the link. Hope all is well in Sweden!