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date: 21 July 2018

Welfare State Research and Comparative Political Economy

Summary and Keywords

Which risks are social and which are private? How much of their GDP do states spend on social welfare? Who exactly is entitled to which benefits? Is it still possible to finance an encompassing welfare state in times of deindustrialization, technological and demographic change, and globalization? And why do the answers to these questions differ so much across countries? These and similar questions—all central to social cohesion in capitalist democracies—ensure that the analysis of welfare politics is one of the theoretically as well as methodologically most dynamic and richest research areas within comparative political economy and political science more generally. Besides outlining the comparative development and the difficulty of measuring social policy, the focus of this contribution lies in a critical review of the most important past and current theoretical debates in the field of welfare state research, as a subfield of comparative political economy. These debates include party- and power-resource-centered approaches and their critiques, institutional explanations of welfare state retrenchment and restructuring, and the importance of multidimensional distributional effects for the analysis of social policy. The article concludes with a review of three more recent debates: the importance of public opinion and individual preferences for the development of the welfare state, the interaction of social policy and the changes of party systems, and the increasing relevance of social investment policies. The political and scientific need for innovative political science research will continue for the foreseeable future: Theory building and methodological possibilities are developing quickly, and the welfare states as research subject are constantly being challenged.

Keywords: welfare states, social policy, social insurance systems, social risks, redistribution, partisan theory, power resource theory, regime theory, institutionalism, new politics, path dependency, party competition, social investment policy


Welfare state research is one of the pivotal fields of policy analysis and comparative political economy. And even though scholars have researched the determinants, actors, institutions, decision making procedures and the effects of social policy for over 40 years, this research area remains until today one of the theoretically as well as methodologically most dynamic and rich research areas: The political science analyses of the determinants of policymaking directly relate to sociological and economic analyses of its effects. Moreover, qualitative and quantitative approaches to analyze social policy within political science are well developed and mutually recognized. This theoretical and methodological pluralism characterizes the area of welfare state analysis (Pierson 2000) and offers a fertile ground for cumulative and innovative research.

There are three reasons for the intense and incessant interest in the analysis of welfare state politics: The first is the sheer importance of social policy for the state budget. Since 1960, the social expenditures in the Western OCED countries—i.e. the public and mandatory private social spending (excluding education) as a share of GDP—rose from below 15 to between 20 and 30 percent. Figure 1 shows growing social spending over time (comparable OECD data are available only from 1980 onward) as well as a substantial variation across countries (for clarity, the figure combines the expenditures from different countries according to their welfare state profile, see below).

Welfare State Research and Comparative Political EconomyClick to view larger

Figure 1. Social expenditures as share of GDP.

Source: Comparative Political Dataset (Armingeon et al., 2013).

When compared according to its importance in the government’s budget, social spending is no less impressive: today, the Western OECD countries spend about 45 to 60 percent of their entire expenditures on social policy.

Besides the importance of social policy for the state budget, its immense and immediate importance for the distribution of life chances and life risks is the second reason for the high and continued interest in social policy within political science. Within this context lies also the third reason: this policy field essentially exemplifies the power of politics to shape society. Despite similar economic and demographic challenges, different countries have always responded to them in very diverse ways (see Schmidt 2005: 199ff for a useful overview of the development of differences, and their explanations). There is a basic consensus in comparative welfare state research (i.e. within political science, the discipline this article focuses on1) that political actors, power relations, and institutions are the determining factors of the design and generosity of social policy. In other words, social policy is not “functional,” i.e. not the direct result of “objective” economic, social or demographic problems, even though these factors constitute, of course, the backdrop of the political process. Social policy is to a much larger extent the result of genuinely political decisions, which bring about direct and far-reaching consequences for the people whose life chances they affect. Therefore, the importance of politics is what makes social policy such an important research subject beyond the field of welfare state research only. Some of the key approaches of public policy research were developed mainly within the field of social policy, such as power resource theory, the theory of path dependency, and—to a lesser extent—partisan theory and varieties of capitalism.

The next section “The Development of Welfare States” will provide an overview of the most important areas of social policy and of the development of welfare states across time and countries. The second part of the chapter addresses the field’s current state of research, by laying out the temporal and analytical development of the most important theoretical approaches of social policy, focusing particularly on recent debates.

Given the complexity and vastness of the research field, this article cannot provide an exhaustive account of the political-science insights and approaches in social policy. Hence, the focus of this chapter is restricted to political science in disciplinary terms, and the geographic focus is on Western OECD countries. Although the welfare state literature in the younger democracies is growing quickly, theory building is concentrated mostly on the advanced capitalist democracies. For the same reason, the article emphasizes the contributions of comparative welfare state research and largely omits country-specific findings.

The Development of Welfare States

Social policy intervenes in society and the economy both to redistribute material resources between classes and to safeguard against social risks. It does so by regulating the economy, redistributing material goods, or providing state support services. Social policy covers a broad repertoire of instruments, of which the distribution and redistribution of material goods—by means of taxes and transfers—constitutes the core. Regulation (such as work safety, minimum wages, or employment protection) and state services (such as child care, healthcare, and unemployment counseling services) are also a standard part of social policy.2

The most important element of this definition is, however, that social policy distributes and redistributes resources in order to insure against “social risks.”3 The choice of risks to be included in the canon of social risks is a political decision. Countries have, at different times, addressed this choice in their own way. Whether parenthood as a reason of income loss, for instance, is a social (versus a private) risk, justifying and demanding a targeted intervention by the state, is in many countries disputed. Countries like Germany or Sweden maintain generous support for parental leave. They replace the income losses of mothers and fathers for several months or even several years and guarantee their employment positions. Other countries, like the United States or Switzerland, however, grant merely a few weeks of maternity protection.

There are, however, a number of traditional risks that have become essential for most welfare states: old age, sickness, accident, disability, unemployment, and (at least in most countries) motherhood. When these risks materialize, people can no longer earn their livelihood or that of their family in the labor market. There are also risks that come from supporting dependent family members (child benefits, widower pensions, etc.). Scholars argue that these are the typical income-loss risks of the industrial age (Bonoli, 2005; Taylor-Gooby, 2005)—typical because they focus on the needs of the male industrial worker, as the family’s breadwinner.

The changes of family structures and of labor markets since the 1970s have placed, according to these authors, a number of additional social risks on the agenda of most modern welfare states. These new risks include, in particular, not being able to work because of care-taking duties or skills obsolete in the labor market (long-term unemployment). The state can, in turn, respond to these risks with reintegration measures and child-care services. These risks are “new” particularly due to their pervasiveness and political salience in the post-industrial era.

Even though the traditional risks, which social policies protect against, resemble each other in the most developed welfare states, these countries’ specific designs of social policies differ greatly. A comprehensive description of these differences across countries and time is beyond the scope of this article; the discussion here is restricted to the main features of the welfare state and the most common indicators that allow an overall comparison.

There are differences between welfare states, concerning on the one hand the size and generosity of specific social policies and on the other hand their institutional design and underlying logic. On a very general level, it is possible to divide the developed welfare states into clusters along two dimensions (according to Bonoli, 1997, based on Esping-Andersen, 1990). Regarding the benefit level, welfare states can be either generous or residual. Concerning the distributional logic, they differ by the degree of redistribution: the benefit level can be egalitarian or stratifying. In an egalitarian system, the range between minimal and maximal benefit is relatively small (redistribution principle), while in a stratifying system, it is large. This larger range (or the inequality in the benefit level) results from the fact that the benefits are apportioned proportionally to the paid social contributions (insurance principle).4

From these two dimensions—generosity and distributional logic—roughly four types of welfare states result:

  1. 1. Egalitarian-universalist welfare states, which combine comprehensive benefits with substantial vertical redistribution, are located mostly in Scandinavia.

  2. 2. Generous insurance systems, which offer comprehensive benefits but which stratify them according to contributions and employment, characterize the welfare states of continental Europe. Both Anglo-Saxon and South European countries typically have smaller welfare states.

  3. 3. In Europe’s southern countries, the welfare states are structured especially according to the insurance principle.

  4. 4. The Anglo-Saxon countries are more egalitarian and more redistributive in their benefit structure, but always at a very low level.

This rough classification does not, of course, do justice to the complexity of country variation and the development of the welfare states over time. In particular, the extensive reform efforts during the recent decades have intensified the tendency toward hybrid welfare states (e.g., Palier, 2010).

The Difficulty of Measuring Social Policy

The complexity of concrete, real-world social policies generally requires country-specific, qualitative case studies to do justice to their various dimensions of benefit levels, coverage, entitlement requirements, and governance structures. Comparative welfare state research necessarily operates at a higher level of abstraction in order to make social policies comparable across sectors and countries. The selection of comparable data when measuring social policies—or their change due to reforms—is one of this field’s largest and most debated challenges. This issue concerns the conceptualization of the policy issues to be measured as well as their actual measurement (see Clasen & Siegel, 2007 on the specific topic of “the dependent variable problem”).

Comparative welfare state research draws mostly on two types of data: statistics on public expenditures on social policies, and statistics on the level and coverage of individual social policy programs. Both types have their distinct problems, which will be presented in a short overview in this section. Data on public expenditures in different policy fields are available for long time periods and for a wide range of countries, especially in the form of OECD data tables and specialized data sets from comparative welfare state research (e.g., Armingeon et al., 2013). Many—especially early—studies tried to explain aggregate public spending as a measure of a welfare state’s size and, ultimately, its generosity. The indisputable advantages of these public expenditure data are their immediate budgetary relevance, their political visibility, and their extensive availability. They suffer, however, from a number of shortcomings. De Deken and Kittel (2007) emphasize that their comparability is limited because they are based upon complex and sometimes nontransparent definitions of public versus private expenditures. In addition, changes in social policy programs often appear only several years later in the actual public budgets, which is why public expenditures reflect reforms in an insufficient manner. In a similarly critical vain, Siegel (2007) points out the problem that public expenditures are usually set in relation to gross domestic product, which means that variations in the business cycle cause the figures to fluctuate even in the absence of any policy change. Public expenditures in any given field also depend on demand, that is, the extent of the problem the policies address. Expenditures on unemployment programs, for instance, can rise in economically fraught times without any increase in the program’s generosity. Figure 2 shows public expenditures on unemployment benefits as a share of GDP in Germany, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

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Figure 2. Public expenditures for unemployment benefits as a share of GDP.

Source: Comparative Political Dataset (Armingeon et al., 2013).

Figure 2 shows that the expenditures were highest in Spain over the entire time period, while they generally fell in Great Britain and rose in Germany and Sweden during the 1990s. Since then, they have remained in Germany—in contrast to Sweden—at a relatively high level (perhaps due to structural reasons such as reunification or deindustrialization). Two problems of expenditure data become immediately apparent in Figure 2. First, the expenditures reflect not only the cyclical fluctuations of the unemployment rate but also of GDP. Second, the data remain silent about how many people were entitled to unemployment benefits, for how long, and under which conditions. In other words, expenditure data reflect only the budgetary, aggregate part of a social policy’s generosity but not the eligibility criteria or the distribution rules. Expenditure data are thus problematic for the policy areas in which these two dimensions vary greatly (e.g., unemployment or pension insurance). For institutionally more homogenous areas, like education or healthcare, these data do contain useful information about a welfare state’s generosity (Jensen, 2011).

The main problems of expenditure data are that they do not directly reflect political decisions and that they insufficiently represent the institutional design of several social policies. For a long time, research could only solve these issues by resorting to qualitative case studies. Over time, however, comprehensive quantitative data sets on benefit levels and coverage of social policies have become available (see Scruggs et al., 2014 or Korpi & Palme, 2007). These data sets provide comparative codings of coverage rates and income replacement rates of the most important social policies. The income replacement rate is a measurement of the generosity of an instrument, which relates the level of benefits to the average wage of a typical employee. These data allow the effects of specific political decisions as well as the extent of the distribution principle to be measured. Since the emergence of these data, purely expenditure-focused studies have receded into the background. The income replacement rates, however, are not without problems. On the one hand, it is difficult to determine unambiguously the income replacement rate due to the calculation complexity concerning reference income, taxation of the benefits, benefit duration, and public benefit level. These difficulties pose fundamental problems concerning the validity of the data (Wenzelburger at al., 2013; Scruggs, 2013). On the other hand, the replacement rates suffer from a conceptual shortcoming because they necessarily refer to specific exemplary cases, for example a single worker, or a married worker with two children, whose spouse is not gainfully employed. Additionally, all cases presuppose a complete employment history, and the benefits are calculated for one specific benefit period. These case-specific assumptions imply that the generosity for other social groups (e.g., people with an interrupted employment history or the long-term unemployed) is not reflected in the measure.

Figure 3 illustrates these difficulties. It shows the replacement rates of the public unemployment insurance schemes in the same four countries as in the previous figure. As in Figure 2, Spain offers the highest rates and Great Britain the lowest. We also see, however, that the income replacement rates do not depend on the business cycle. This is a clear advantage of these data.

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Figure 3. Income replacement rate of public unemployment insurance. Note: Income replacement rates for a 40-year-old industrial worker with 20 years of work history, no family, and based on the benefit level of the first six months after loss of employment.

Source: Comparative Welfare Entitlements Dataset (Scruggs et al., 2013).

On the other hand, the very steady line for Germany shows that the income replacement rates (depending on the exact definition) do not reflect important policy reforms. In 2004, the government implemented drastic cutbacks in the unemployment insurance scheme with the Hartz IV reforms. After only a year of contribution-based unemployment support, the benefits decreased to the level of social assistance. This reform does not appear in Figure 3 because the replacement rates refer only to the benefit level during the first six months of unemployment.

Overall, it is safe to say that the advent of data on the institutional design of social policies was an important conceptual and empirical advancement in the analysis of social policy. It does not, however, absolve researchers from analyzing carefully the adequacy of these data to measure generosity. Ultimately, it is only possible to evaluate the validity of a measurement in relation to the specific research question.

Current State of Research: What Determines the Emergence of, the Stabilization of, and the Change in Social Policy?

This section first discusses the explanations for the expansion of the modern welfare states in the postwar period of the 20th century. Subsequently, it describes two institutional equilibrium theories of the 1990s and early 2000s; both theories categorized the modern welfare states that had emerged from postwar growth and aimed to explain the stability of social policies and how they function. The third subsection expounds the key contributions on the change in welfare states in the era of slowing economic growth and austerity. The final subsection sheds light on three more recent theoretical debates on social policy. This order roughly mirrors the sequence of theory development, from the first to the most recent theoretical contributions. It is important to note, however, that the early approaches, which were devised originally in the context of welfare state expansion, continue to be relevant and are constantly being further developed. Today, the different theoretical strands are engaged in an active dialogue and in constant competition, which benefits the field of social policy research as a whole.

Early Approaches to Explain the Emergence and Expansion of Welfare States

The early approaches to explain the spectacular expansion of Western welfare states in the 1960s and 1970s were mostly functionalist; they assumed that coping with the consequences of the war and the progression of industrialization created social policy needs and demands as well as economic growth—and hence the ability to meet these demands (e.g., Titmus, 1958; Peacock & Wiseman, 1961; Wilensky, 1975; and the canonical Flora & Alber, 1981). According to this account, the rapidly expanding old-age, accident, widow, illness, and disability social security schemes were primarily a functional response to expanding risks in the context of the waning family unit and community solidarity, caused by industrialization. These explanations of the sociopolitical process remained largely blind to the differences across countries, political actors, and power relations.

The party-centered theories of the 1970s should be regarded mainly as political science’s first genuinely political response to this early functionalism. Two approaches are particularly important: partisan theory and power resource theory. Partisan theory argued that the ideological orientation of parties and governments shapes the generosity of social security programs. Both early and later contributions along this line of reasoning addressed primarily the explanation of public expenditures in different areas of social policy (Castles & McKinlay, 1979 and Hewitt, 1977 are examples of early contributions; more recent contributions include Schmidt, 1997; Castles, 2009; and Zohlnhöfer et al., 2013).

Within partisan theory, what constitutes the basis for the ideological orientation of parties remains controversial. The power resource approach had from the start a narrower theoretical focus (e.g., Stephens, 1979; Korpi, 1983; and Esping-Andersen, 1985 as examples of early contributions and Korpi & Palme, 2003; Allan & Scruggs, 2004; Bradley et al., 2003; Huber & Stephens, 2001 as later ones). This approach conceptualizes social policy as the actual power resource in the class conflict between labor and capital. This means that social benefits are the goal of labor mobilization, because they reduce workers’ dependency on the commodification of their labor power (what Esping-Andersen, 1990 called “decommodification”). On the other hand, it means that social policy achievements are themselves resources for the mobilization and politicization of the “democratic class struggle,” that is, the conflict in the parliamentary arena between social-democratic labor parties and the parties representing the interests of capital. The radically new—and provocative—element of power resource theory was its obvious root in Marxist class analysis, combined, however, with a steadfast faith in and commitment to nonrevolutionary parliamentarian-democratic distributional politics. It brought the powerful proposition that the welfare state could be an effective instrument to overcome capitalism democratically.

Despite these differences in their theoretical foundations, partisan theory and power resource theory agree on a key hypothesis: the stronger the position of social-democratic parties in parliament and the government, the more generous the design of social policy. In the case of the power resource theory, this linear hypothesis was complemented by contributions that pointed out the importance of specific distributional coalitions. Esping-Andersen (1985) emphasized, for instance, the alliance between social-democratic and agrarian interests for the creation of the Nordic welfare state model, and Van Kersbergen (1995) added to this approach a theory on the influence of Christian Democracy regarding the structure of continental European welfare states. These contributions provided a nuanced picture not only of the size but also of the structure of these welfare states: universalistic-egalitarian in the North, stratified in Europe’s center.5

Besides the functionalist and party-centered approaches to explaining the expansion of social policy schemes, a third important line of research in this early phase of social-policy research is institutionalist theories. Early institution-based contributions argued that similar structural trends may generate different social-policy responses depending on the degree of institutional decentralization and the autonomy of the state (Heclo, 1974; Orloff & Skocpol, 1984; Skocpol, 1992). In reaction to power resource theory, scholars devised arguments that conceptualized the effects of power configurations to be conditional on institutional veto points (Immergut, 1992; Huber, Ragin, & Stephens, 1993; Bonoli, 2000). These arguments did not refute the basic hypotheses of party-centered theories, but added another variable: veto points open up the system, divide power, and require compromise. Thereby, they moderate the influence of partisan governmental power.

Welfare State Typologies: Two Versions of Regime Theory

The early theories of the emergence and formation of the modern welfare states were followed—consequentially—by literature that categorized the outcome of this formation. The resulting typologies, developed in the early 1990s and the early 2000s, became immensely important for the field of social policy, especially in the form of regime theories. Regime theories are equilibrium theories, because they identify an interdependent and self-stabilizing network of institutions. They are heuristic instruments that postulate a number of ideal-typical configurations, to which real-world social policies can be compared. In welfare state research, two regime theories are particularly important: the “worlds of welfare capitalism” (Esping-Andersen, 1990) and the “varieties of capitalism” (Hall & Soskice, 2001).

Esping-Andersen’s (1990) conceptualization of three “worlds” of social policy, which differ according to their politico-ideological origins and the resulting institutional peculiarities, can justifiably be called the single most important and most cited contribution of social policy research. Based on the power resource theory, Esping-Andersen argues that the Western welfare states differ systematically along two dimensions: the workers’ degree of independence from the labor market as a source of subsistence (“decommodification”) and the degree of social inequality that social policy either creates or mitigates (“stratification”). The social democratic welfare states of Northern Europe feature a generous, universalistic-egalitarian profile of social security schemes, while the liberal, Anglo-Saxon welfare states practice egalitarian, but only means-tested, poverty avoidance. And the continental, Christian democratic welfare states established generous, but strongly stratifying, social insurance systems. Each of the institutional configurations generates, according to Esping-Andersen, a specific political support coalition that stabilizes the configuration in place.

The theory of the “three worlds” was used in countless contributions, was criticized, and was further developed.6 Only two objections turned out to be theoretically important and consequential. First, scholars showed that the Southern European welfare states, characterized by low benefit levels and clientelistic practices, need to be distinguished analytically from the other types (Ferrera, 1996; Bonoli, 1997; Manow, 2013). Second, the feminist critique of Esping-Andersen pointed out the necessity to expand the perspective to other policies; authors like Ann Shola Orloff (1993) and Jane Lewis (1993) argued that Esping-Andersen’s focus on wage replacement and its decommodifying effects fails to address the life chances of women. Defamilization is—especially for women—at least as important as decommodification, because it accounts for gender-specific dependencies. Subsequently, scholars paid more attention to family policies, and Esping-Andersen (1999) himself acknowledged the critique by extending his typology in a follow-up study. Today, several studies emphasize the tendency toward hybrid forms of welfare states (e.g., Palier, 2010) that could increasingly blur the differences between the three worlds. These adjustment processes occur, however, in a severely institutionally constrained way, which stabilizes regime differences (Beramendi et al., 2015).

At the beginning of the 2000s, another regime theory emerged that attracted extensive attention in welfare state research—the “varieties of capitalism” (Hall & Soskice, 2001)—because it offered a different interpretation of the creation and role of social policies. The basic assumptions of this approach fundamentally contradict power resource theory: the key driver of social-policy development, according to this account, is not class conflict but the cross-class interests of workers and employers in the most productive firms and sectors of the economy (Mares, 2003). Producer group politics are thus this approach’s linchpin. Social policy is not seen as a decommodifying, redistributive instrument but as an institutional incentive structure for workers (Estevez-Abe et al., 2001). In the coordinated market economies of Northern and Continental Europe, the key industries require workers with firm- and industry-specific skills. But for individuals, it is rational to invest in these “specific skills” only if they are protected by generous state, sectoral, or firm-level social insurance schemes or by employment protection. In the liberal market economies of the Anglo-Saxon world, by contrast, producers need flexibility and workers with general skills. For this reason, social insurance is less important in these countries. Varieties of capitalism conceptualized social policies purely in insurance terms (as opposed to redistribution), and thereby sparked a strong and growing literature on insurance motives as drivers of social policy preferences, which became relevant and visible beyond the actual varieties of capitalism theory (Iversen & Soskice, 2001; Rehm, 2011; Rehm et al., 2012). Also in contrast to power resource theory, which underlies Esping-Andersen’s regime theory, the theory of liberal versus coordinated market economies pursues an individualistic, rationalist, and largely functionalist approach. Social policy is an instrument of successful economic policy and not one of distributional compensation; varieties of capitalism focuses on efficiency instead of distributional policy, and on insurance instead of redistribution.

The debate between the two approaches is not yet resolved and takes place mostly in the field of historical, qualitative research, because their main difference lies in the role of capital for the historical introduction of major social insurance systems (cf. Mares, 2003 or Swenson, 2001 vs. Korpi, 2006 and Paster, 2011). It is difficult to deny that varieties of capitalism can—at best—explain only parts of social policy (such as the most important social insurance programs). Large segments of the welfare state (e.g., social assistance) can hardly be explained without reference to distributive power struggles.

Explanations of the Retrenchment and the Restructuring of Welfare States

The three decades after World War II saw an extraordinarily high level of economic growth, and this growth fostered the expansion of social policy. Since the 1980s, the structural context of social policy has changed dramatically: slowing economic growth and deindustrialization, consequently increasing structural unemployment, demographic aging, and declining birth rates are merely the most important trends that strain social policy and welfare states. In the 1990s, the question emerged whether social policy could even still be funded or whether the globalization-related strengthening of capital interests would radically erode social policy programs (Kuhnle, 2000).

In this environment, Paul Pierson’s (1996, 2001a) “New Politics of the Welfare State” generated enormous resonance in political science. Pierson argued that social policy arrived in an “era of permanent austerity.” This austerity would not lead to a simple inversion of the power resources theory (i.e., to a strengthening of capital interests against labor interests and hence to the dismantling of social policy programs). Rather, the “mature welfare state” is, according to Pierson, institutionally and politically stabilized: the established social policies lead to a quasi-automatic growth of the welfare state, because the demographic and structural transformations make expenditures grow even in the absence of political reforms (Pierson, 2001b). In addition, Pierson made the case that benefit cuts are politically unlikely, because the welfare state creates its own support through power asymmetries, path dependencies, and policy feedbacks. Because larger and larger parts of the population have earned claims on the welfare state through paid contributions (and have become “stakeholders”), its support has grown far beyond the confines of the social democratic electorate. No political party would dare to cut benefits, lest it be punished in the next election.

The evidence for this stability thesis is empirically disputed (Green-Pedersen, 2004; Starke, 2006). In particular, the proponents of power resource theory disagreed with Pierson and criticized his choice of dependent variable. While Pierson shows the stability mainly using expenditure data, they provided analyses that demonstrated the restraining effect of right-wing, conservative governments—even in recent years—on actual benefit levels (Korpi & Palme, 2003; Allan & Scruggs, 2004; Pontusson & Weisstanner, 2018) and public employment (Clayton & Pontusson, 1998). More recent contributions have suggested a useful distinction between policy areas that can explain the institutional conditions under which partisan politics remain effective or, respectively, undercut. Jensen (2012) and Zohlnhöfer et al. (2013) argue that social insurance schemes that target life-course risks and reach large parts of the population—especially the old-age provision—are indeed stabilized by institutional and electoral mechanisms, as Pierson asserts. In these policy fields, partisan differences in policymaking shrink. The fields that entail more redistribution between social classes (because risks are concentrated and benefits accrue mainly to the less privileged, especially unemployment benefits) continue to exhibit ideological partisan differences.

Pierson’s New Politics thesis may hold empirically only in the presence of certain conditions. His contribution to social policy research, however, extends much further. The most important consequence of Pierson’s argument for research on the transformation of the welfare state was steering theoretical attention away from blunt benefit levels towards the institutional design of social policies and its consequences for political dynamics. The key insight of social policy research in the last two decades was essentially a very old one: as Lowi (1972) already noted, policy shapes politics. The political conflict over reforming a policy—against the background of the existing policy—is not the same as the one over introducing a new policy.

From this insight, two strands of literature emerged that explain the recent transformation of social policy from a new, more institutionalist perspective. One growing body of literature concerns “endogenous” distributional effects. It examines how a policy’s distributional effects change over time due to an accumulation of marginal policy reforms (Streeck & Thelen, 2005) or even in the absence of any reform (Hacker, 2004). The underlying idea is that social policy benefits may be dismantled, for instance, by not adapting the policy to a changing situation (what Hacker, 2004 calls “drift”). The Literature on “dualization” offers another example: when fewer and fewer workers fulfill a social policy’s eligibility criteria (e.g., as a consequence of structurally growing atypical or marginal employment), the welfare state is selectively retrenched even if the benefit levels for the (shrinking) core workforce remain stable (Palier & Thelen, 2010; Emmenegger et al., 2012).

Besides these contributions, another strand of literature emerged that theorizes and examines the increasing multidimensionality of welfare politics. Precisely because the institutional distributional effects of social policy are so different, existing welfare states “create” differing stakeholder groups that may cross-cut traditional class conflicts. Giuliano Bonoli (2005) argues, for instance, that the interaction of industrial welfare states with post-industrial societal changes generates “new social risks,” whose opponents and supporters are not adequately captured by the simple labor-capital antagonism. Others contend, in a similar vein, that the left (social democracy and unions) needs to be reconceptualized with regard to the diverging sociopolitical interests of labor market insiders and outsiders (Rueda, 2005; Häusermann, 2010).

In this context, one can also note the emerging literature on migration and social policy, which points out that the generosity of social policy does not necessarily include the integration of migrants into social security systems (Sainsbury, 2012; Eugster, 2013). The explicit exclusion of immigrants to maintain the social-policy privileges of a nationally defined population is called welfare chauvinism. Hence, welfare chauvinism can also split the interests of labor.

The politically relevant groups in all of these contributions (new social risk bearers, labor market outsiders, migrants) are not—or are only insufficiently—taken into account by the existing welfare states because they were tailored historically and politically to the needs of the core industrial workforce. The interests of these groups do not necessarily converge with those of this core workforce and defy the simple left-right categorization that underlies partisan or power resource theory. These more recent approaches require therefore a more complex, multidimensional understanding of sociopolitical distributional conflicts. This multidimensionality of cleavages accounts for flexible and changing coalition patterns, which cannot be captured by the traditional partisan approaches (Bonoli & Natali, 2012; Häusermann, 2012; Beramendi et al., 2015).

Recent Debates and Approaches

Welfare state research is developing at least as dynamically as welfare states themselves. For that reason, it is useful to point out three current debates and trends in social policy research that have not yet been fully developed as distinct theoretical approaches, but that complement or challenge traditional approaches.

First, welfare state research has turned its attention more strongly to political economy approaches. A rise in micro-level centered research questions and explanations is the most visible consequence of this trend. It implies a stronger emphasis on individual-level research questions and designs. The research on the (institutional) determinants of people’s social policy attitudes and preferences is in fact not new (cf. Svallfors, 1997; Larsen, 2008). More recent studies, however, focus more on policy processes and “demand-driven” policy change, and less on attitudes themselves (e.g., Brooks & Manza, 2007; Gingrich & Ansell, 2012; Rehm, 2011, 2016; Rehm et al., 2012; Häusermann et al., 2015, 2016). This trend can be understood as the effort to provide a micro-foundation for the meso and macro theories of social policy development. This aim is all the more important as many traditional theories, like power resource and partisan theory, rest upon the aggregation of assumed, rather than empirically observed, interests.

This point leads to the second more recent and unresolved debate: the question of the explanatory power of classic party-political approaches of social policy (for an overview, see Häusermann et al., 2013). Partisan theory is one of social policy research’s most established approaches. Whether social democratic parties still implement more generous social policy reforms than conservative parties is disputed. But generally, we have seen the explanatory power of the “partisan color” of the government decline since the 1980s (Huber & Stephens, 2001; Zohlnhöfer et al., 2013). What most studies leave unanswered are the reasons for this waning explanatory power. In most cases, they put forward theoretical explanations like globalization constraints, financial pressure, or parties’ ideological convergence, thereby neglecting to a large extent the fact that parties and party systems have changed fundamentally in the last few decades. The emergence of right-wing populist parties, which mobilize mostly workers (Rydgren, 2012), and the transformation of social democracy into culturally liberal parties of the middle class (Kitschelt, 1994; Beramendi et al., 2015) have fundamentally altered the electoral base of traditionally “left” and “right” parties. This transformation has not only created a new dynamic of party competition (Kitschelt, 2001), but has also led to changes in parties’ social policy positions (Häusermann, 2010; Gingrich & Häusermann, 2015).

Finally, a substantive debate on social policy is becoming increasingly important. This debate—beyond the retrenchment or restructuring of existing social policy—is about the goals of social policy in a post-industrial society, because striving to protect income increasingly disregards the reality of eroding labor market security and family structures (Esping-Andersen, 2002). Recent contributions argue that social policy may (need to) transform into “social investment policy,” enabling people ex ante to find gainful employment instead of alleviating poverty ex post through transfers and compensating income loss. Key elements of such enabling and activating policies are investments in (early childhood, regular, and vocational) education, child care services for working parents, and activating labor market measures and training for job seekers (Morel et al., 2012; Hemerijck, 2013; Hemerijck, 2017). This debate on compensating versus activating social policy raises the fundamental question of the research subject and the central “dependent variables” of social-policy research, which can (still) only insufficiently be measured with the field’s usual data sources. The theory building on the politics of social investment policy is only in its infancy (Garritzmann et al., 2017).

Conclusion and Outlook

For decades, social policy—whether being expanded or cut back—has constantly been high on the political and political science agenda. The creation and expansion of comprehensive welfare states is one of the central democratic achievements of the 20th century and has led—with considerable variation across countries—to a drastic reduction in poverty risks due to sickness, old and young age, unemployment, or accident. In the last three decades, two contrasting trends have stood at the center of politics and research: on the one hand, the demand for the expansion of these welfare states to the new social risks of long-term unemployment, structural change, new family structures, and the compatibility of family and career; and on the other hand, the question of financial viability of welfare states, or rather the necessity of dismantling social benefits. This tension between intensified demands and limited resources is clearly apparent in the recent context of the “Great Recession.” More austerity or more investment? Does the crisis require more or less social policy? Or, more specifically, whose needs and risks are particularly being protected? During the crisis, these questions have become more acute and have gained particular visibility.

Social policy analysis can only provide an answer to these questions by analyzing the genuinely political factors that matter here: the interests of actors, power relations, and institutions. Their interaction determines how scarce resources are distributed—who wins and who loses. Not least with this level-headed analysis, social policy research contributes to a correct and necessary “de-romanticizing” of social policy: benefits are not given according to the level of distress to those most in need, but to those who prevail. Social policy is not identical to vertical redistribution, but to collectivization of selected risks in favor of some social groups and at the expense of others. In times of scarce resources, these processes of distributional politics increase in complexity because the rivalry between the needs of different groups is more intense. For this reason, one-dimensional left-right categorizations are often insufficient to capture the front lines of distributional politics. In other words, social policy is not only the battle between the poor and the rich. Unemployed youth, single mothers, employers with a shortage of skilled workers, industrial workers troubled with fear of social decline, women who work part-time, working parents with children, and pensioners all have their own specific demands for social policy. These pluralizing demands may even broaden political support for the welfare state. But the support also becomes more heterogeneous, more fragmented, and perhaps more precarious. Precisely because of this pluralization, social policy remains a particularly exhilarating, important, and fruitful field for the use, but also for the development, of policy analysis.


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(1.) There also is a literature in economics on the institutional and structural determinants of social spending, which mostly overlaps with structuralist approaches in political science.

(2.) It is controversial whether education policy should be included in the canon of social policy, and, as a result, its inclusion varies.

(3.) For a long time, social policy was understood in terms of its equalizing goal as redistributive effort. But redistribution has also always had the purpose of securing citizens income, that is, insuring them. However, while redistribution always has insurance functions, insurance is not necessarily redistributive. The distinction between the redistributive and insurance effects of social policy has therefore gained considerable attention in the past two decades of comparative political economy research, especially in the literature on “varieties of capitalism” (see section “Welfare State Typologies: Two Versions of Regime Theory”).

(4.) In addition to generosity and distributional logic, there are two further characteristics that distinguish social policy, but which are not as central to this contribution (e.g., Palier, 2010): the criteria for eligibility (universalist vs. contribution based vs. means tested) and the organization of social policy programs (state-run vs. corporatist vs. private).

(5.) Manow (2002) and Van Kersbergen and Manow (2009) developed the corresponding theory regarding the influence of religious and denominational movements on the design of social policy.

(6.) A number of replication studies focused on the methodological critiques of Esping-Andersen’s identification of the regimes by testing his typology with cluster and factor analyses. Depending on the choice of indicators, the results varied slightly. In particular, scholars found a considerable heterogeneity among the welfare states that were assigned to Christian democratic models (see Arts & Gelissen, 2002 for an overview of the replication studies and their results).