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What Is the Evidence of Welfare State Retrenchment? Essay

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1. Introduction

1. Crisis of Welfare State

At the end of the 1970’s, the welfare state moved into crisis (OECD, 1981; Rosanvallon, 1981). As the period of high economic growth ended and stagflation appeared, governments couldn’t afford the social expenditure which had been expanded before. Fiscal deficit appeared and unemployment rate started to increase with economic depression.

The idea shared by neo-Marxists and neoliberals was that the redistributive logic of the welfare state was contradicted by the logic of capitalism and that the welfare activities of the state would have to be rolled back or reconfigured so as to conform to the needs of capitalism.


2. What does Welfare State Retrenchment mean?

Similar to the neo-Marxists’ and neoliberals’ insistence, since the economic crisis of the mid-70s, governments have seemed concerned above all to reduce spending levels and implement retrenchment policies.[2]

Retrenchment is defined “to include policy changes that either cut social expenditure, restructure welfare state programs to conform more closely to the residual welfare state model, or alter the political environment in ways that enhance the probability of such outcomes in the future”.


A number of comparative studies on welfare-state development have used the size of social expenditures to the GDP, “the welfare state effort” indictor, as their central dependent variable. However, while this indicator is relevant, as is widely recognized, it has some limits for explanation of the welfare state effort.

2. Has ‘Welfare State Retrenchment’ happened?

As noted above, the expenditure-based welfare-state effort indicator used in most studies of retrenchment is associated with serious problems, which are aggravated in the context of retrenchment. For example, rising unemployment levels have tended to raise social expenditures thereby increasing the numerator, while lower GDP growth rates negatively affect the denominator in this indicator. The consequences of an economic crisis may therefore appear as increases in welfare-state efforts.[4]

There have been many studies using various factors as indicators instead of using social expenditure. One of those studies brings in the concept of social citizenship rights as an indicator reflecting the extent of welfare state retrenchment, using preliminary data from the Social Citizenship Indicator Program (SCIP). Preliminary data from this source have been used to analyze retrenchment in social insurance programs in the 1975-1995 period (Korpi & Palme 2000, 2001, 2003).[5] 18 countries with uninterrupted political democracy after Second World War were selected as subjects for this study.

The nature of the social citizenship rights have been legislated via major social insurance programs in 18 countries and the ‘social citizenship right’ indicator reflects entitlements that here have been quantified in terms of net replacement rates for model households. Net Replacement Rate(NRR) is defined as

The analysis is based on three social insurance programs giving benefits during short-term absences from work, that is, sickness cash insurance, work accident insurance, and unemployment insurance. Decreases in net replacement rates reflect at least three types of factors: (1) politically made decisions to cut benefit levels, (2) political “nondecisions,” that is, the failure to raise benefit levels and ceilings in the face of increasing wages, and (3) taxation of benefits that is “claw-back” via taxation[6]

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows the development of average net replacement rates in sickness, work accident, and unemployment insurance during the period 1930-95. We can easily find roughly similar patterns of change in the three programs, but at different levels. The downward deviation from the long-increasing trend(1930-1975) is an indication of retrenchment.

– Table 1

As a preliminary overview of retrenchment in net replacement rates from 1975 to 1995, Table 1 shows declines from an initial peak year up to 1995 in each of the three programs. There has been relatively rapid decrease in Net Replacement Rate among some western countries after 1975. .

3. Conclusion

As we can see the graph above, it seems that the long increase in social rights has been turned into a decline considering Averaged Net Replacement Rate.

However, averaged decreases cannot be described as an overall dismantling of these social insurance programs. There are considerable differences among countries in these three social-insurance programs. It’s because the existing institutions and social interest which are different among countries affect the country’s decision on a social policy.[7]

Thus, we can conclude that there has been overall decrease in western countries in terms of welfare benefit, but significant retrenchment has taken place in several countries.

New developments taken together -globalization, European Union integration, aging national populations, major societal changes, technological progress- pointed to the need for a thorough overhaul of state welfare systems and it would have made the countries reform their own welfare systems.[8] It’s just the process to be adapted to the new economic and social conditions.

Although it’s clear that major countries have focused on the reforming welfare policies and even if this reform has reduced welfare benefits, if it’s inevitable for welfare state to persist, at least survive, reform or even retrenchment needs to be available option. Expansion of welfare state isn’t the only one answer to desirable welfare state.

< References >

Bruno Palier. (2004). “French Welfare Reform in Comparative Perspective”. Revue française de sociologie, Vol. 45, Supplement: An Annual English Selection, pp. 97-124. Fiona Ross. (2000). “Framing Welfare Reform in Affluent Societies: Rendering Restructuring More Palatable?”. Journal of Public Policy, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 169-193. Gunther M. Hega. (1996).. “Book Review”. The Journal of Politics, Vol. 58, No. 3, pp. 917-920. Jacob S. Hacker. (2004). “Privatizing Risk without Privatizing the Welfare State: The Hidden Politics of Social Policy Retrenchment in the United States”. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 98, No. 2, pp. 243-260. Jonas Edlund. (2006). “Trust in the Capability of the Welfare State and General Welfare State Support: Sweden 1997-2002”. Michael K. Brown. (1988). “Remaking the Welfare State: Retrenchment and Social Policy in America and Europe”. Acta Sociologica, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Dec., 2006), pp. 395-417. Paul Pierson. (1994). “Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher and the Politics of Retrenchment”. Richard Clayton and Jonas Pontusson. (1998). “Welfare-State Retrenchment Revisited: Entitlement Cuts, Public Sector Restructuring, and Inegalitarian Trends in Advanced Capitalist Societies”.

Samuel H. Beer. (1998). “Welfare Reform: Revolution or Retrenchment?”. Publius, Vol. 28, No. 3, Welfare Reform in the United States: A Race to the Bottom?, pp. 9-15. Walter Korpi. (2003). “Welfare-State Regress in Western Europe: Politics, Institutions, Globalization, and Europeanization”. Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 29, pp. 589-609. Walter Korpi, Joakim Palme. (2003). “New Politics and Class Politics in the Context of Austerity and Globalization: Welfare State Regress in 18 Countries, 1975-95”. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 3, pp. 425-446 Yvonne Zylan and Sarah A. Soule. (2000). “Ending Welfare As We Know It (Again): Welfare State Retrenchment, 1989-1995”. Social Forces, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Dec., 2000), pp. 623-652.

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