welfare state

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welfare state

1. a system in which the government undertakes the chief responsibility for providing for the social and economic security of its population, usually through unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, and other social-security measures
2. a social system characterized by such policies
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005

welfare state

the state provision of benefits and social services intended to improve the wellbeing of citizens. The term was introduced after the Second World War to refer to social legislation, particularly in the areas of health, education, income maintenance, housing and personal social services. The welfare state intervenes in people's lives at national and local levels. Since 1945, the welfare state has expanded its scope in the UK and it is now a major concern of government (in its cost and operation). Life in all modern Western societies is now affected by welfare concerns and the idea of a welfare society has a strong ideological appeal.

There are differing sociological explanations of the welfare state:

  1. the citizenship view, most developed in the work of T. H. MARSHALL, which suggests that the state needs to provide minimal welfare support to ensure that an individual can properly participate in a liberal-democratic society;
  2. the functionalist view expressed especially by PARSONS, that state intervention through social policy is necessary for resolving conflict in complex industrial societies;
  3. the Marxist view, which suggests that the welfare state has an ideological role in legitimating capitalist social relations, and that individuals give support to the state and to a capitalist economic system because they adhere to a belief in the welfare that a capitalist state provides.

Marxists have also argued that a welfare state supports the owners of the means of production by reducing the reproduction costs of labour; the welfare state's function is to provide a healthy, educated and well-housed labour force. Further, the conditions under which welfare support is given, that people receive minimal support and have to prove eligibility, are seen to act as a powerful means of social control. However, Marxists have also argued that there are aspects of the welfare state which are genuinely beneficial to the working classes, such as the National Health Service or rent subsidies. They have argued that these benefits are the result of political pressure coming from the labour movement. Marxists see the welfare state, therefore, as an arena of class conflict which is ambivalent in its operation, partially supporting the owners of the means of production and partially supporting the working classes. More recently, feminist sociologists have argued that explanations of the welfare state have ignored the relationship between women and the welfare state. They argue that many aspects of the welfare state were achieved by women working within the labour movement before 1945, such as the Women's Labour League and the Women's Cooperative Guild. They have also argued that the welfare state has been a powerful regulator of women's lives by sustaining ideas about the roles of women as carers. For example, the Beveridge Report of 1942 specifically excluded married women from being eligible for national insurance benefits; they were to be dependent on their husbands for any social security support. Feminists have also been critical of policies promoting COMMUNITY CARE, arguing that community care is euphemistic for the care that women provide for dependent relatives.

Following the introduction of monetarist policies and talk of FISCAL CRISIS in a number of Western societies since 1979, the idea of welfare being provided by the state has been questioned. Sober assessment of welfare policies, however, indicates that the welfare state is surviving these critiques, albeit in somewhat changed form. In the UK, levels of funding remain high. Government reforms throughout the 1980s and 1990s have been aimed more at changing the institutional arrangements of the welfare state by limiting the direct provision of welfare by state institutions, introducing quasi-markets and a separation of purchasers of services from providers, allowing schools and hospitals to manage themselves, and channelling state funding into an increasing number of private and voluntary organizations. The long-term implications of these changes, which certainly have as one aim ‘value for money’ (VFM) and a reduction of funding, remain to be assessed. See H. Glennerster and J. Midgley (eds), The Radical Right and the Welfare States (1991). See also SOCIAL POLICY, POVERTY, CITIZEN RIGHTS, NEW PUBLIC MANAGEMENT, AUDIT, PURCHASER-PROVIDER SPLIT.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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