From past perfect to uncertain future

The Welfare State Reader
March 2, 2001

This book will undoubtedly sell well. It provides an excellent and much-needed review of where academic social-policy scholarship had got to by the end of the millennium. It is less successful at dealing with the question of where we go next, but this may reflect current dilemmas of welfare-state policy making and the diversity of available theory in the subject.

The particular contribution of the book to social-policy teaching is to draw together key material for a cross-national comparative approach: Gosta Esping-AndersenÕs path-breaking analysis of welfare-state regimes and the work of leading contributors to debates about the challenges to the welfare-state settlement from population ageing, economic globalisation and the politics of retrenchment.

State welfare systems vary between countries. All are undergoing major reform in response to pressures that are, broadly speaking, similar, yet there is no sign of convergence. Cross-national comparisons offer the student a valuable point of entry to debates about the factors that produce welfare states in different national settings and that influence their evolution or their persistence.

The comparative heart of the book follows a broad review of theoretical approaches to welfare, covering literature on the foundations of state welfare from the Marxist and social democratic left, the classical and neo-liberal right and feminist writers. It is succeeded by a brief section on welfare futures, which presents a range of approaches: the tensions of the 30-40-40 society, the relation between state policies and ecological crisis, postmodernism and the risk society. This is the least satisfactory section, possibly because there is no generally accepted paradigm in the subject for explaining the way in which welfare states are responding to current challenges.

The editors of a 400-page reader cannot cover every aspect of a topic as diverse as state welfare. What is left out? The tradition of welfare-state studies as presented in this reader seems to pay insufficient attention to three areas. The book is dominated by the European/Anglo-Saxon tradition, reflecting the national traditions within which scholarship in this area has developed. It leaves the welfare implications of the transition in Eastern and Central Europe obscure (where citizens have experienced what are arguably the most rapid welfare changes of the past decade). It does not cover the diverse welfare systems of the South and of the more recently industrialised states of Southeast Asia, although there is now an extensive literature on the various traditions of welfare outside the industrialised West. Also, the approach of the reader follows the traditional understanding of welfare as an activity of governments, expressed in terms of taxation and public spending, social insurance, labour market policy, social security benefits and other direct services. This follows a line of thought stretching back through Beveridge and Bismarck. One result is that while two important feminist analyses are included, the contribution of feminist and other work to a broader approach, which highlights family, household, gender politics and the considerations of everyday life, receives little attention.

Finally, the section dealing with welfare futures is limited, possibly because of space constraints, possibly because of the difficulty of choosing from the enormous range of material available. It does not touch on the developments inspired by feminism, or the debate on citizenship, from Bryan Turner to Ruth Lister, or the questions about the boundaries of state welfare that underlie debates about state and non-state - commercial, mutual, community and family - welfare. It does not cover the range of models for future welfare system, evident in Confucian, state socialist and other societies. It does not include issues surrounding the growing role of transnational organisations in influencing welfare across the globe.

Thus, the reader operates within a particular state-centred perspective, offering the student an excellent summary of the dominant tradition in the subject. It is less successful at covering new developments in welfare provision or in academic work that seeks to understand them. Welfare-state studies is an eclectic, broad and rapidly developing field. It is stale news to point out that one book does not capture the lot. I hope the editors will consider a companion reader on welfare futures.

Peter Taylor-Gooby is professor of social policy, University of Kent at Canterbury.


The Welfare State Reader

Editor - Christopher Pierson and Francis Castles
ISBN - 0 7456 2252 6 and 2253 4
Publisher - Polity
Price - £55.00 and £15.99
Pages - 403

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