The Social Science Encyclopedia

Authors: Kuper & Kuper
Summary: In approximately 1,200 words, this entry defines the welfare state, describes its development, discusses liberal and conservative critiques of the concept, and concludes by mentioning some comparative studies of advanced capitalist democracies.
This entry defines the welfare state as the role states play in providing welfare benefits to their citizens. These welfare benefits may include income maintenance, health care, housing, education, and other social services. Most industrialized countries began providing some welfare benefits by the end of the nineteenth century. The 1930s and 1940s, however, marked the era of significant welfare growth. During these decades, governments focused on full male employment and expanded insurance benefits.
Until the 1970s, welfare-state studies were dominated by a social-democratic approach that viewed welfare provisions as vital to an egalitarian society. The ascendancy of New Right governments in the United States and Britain in the 1980s marked the rise of a different approach to welfare issues. From this conservative New Right perspective, the welfare state is not the solution to society's ills, but in large part the cause of those ills. At the same time as this conservative critique, and arising partly in response to it, leftist social movements coalescing around such interests as gender, race and disability challenged the welfare state to broaden its understanding of "welfare."
In addition to such critiques from the right and left, the traditional welfare state has been buffeted by large-scale changes: demographic and cultural changes in the industrialized West, widespread privatization of government enterprises, and the continuing rise of the European Union. All of these developments have posed new challenges to the welfare state, and have cast doubt on the continued appropriateness of the very term "welfare state."
The entry concludes by briefly discussing the findings of several studies comparing welfare states among advanced capitalist democracies.