Welfare attitudes in a changing Europe


Earlier this week, we released data for 18 of the 24 countries who took part in Round 8 (2016). In this post, Wim van Oorschot - who helped design the welfare module in Round 8 - explains the importance of repeating this Round 4 (2008) module.

In all European countries the welfare state with its social benefits and services became substantially challenged in the past decades. For instance, intensified international economic competition threatens the redistributive capacity of national welfare states, while population aging, new family arrangements and labour market flexibilisation confront the welfare state with new social risks that have to be taken care of.

To be sure, the welfare state is not only challenged by structural changes, increasingly it is also subjected to more ideologically grounded accusations of undermining individual autonomy and responsibility, of damaging traditional social ties and of weakening private forms of solidarity and self-help.

As a result, substantial welfare reforms are visible in all European countries, however, taking different forms and directions depending on national legacies and circumstances. But in all cases traditional solidarities, such as between older and younger generations, between rich and poor, between active and inactive people are under pressure.

In addition, for many, the solidarity between natives and newcomers has turned into a central welfare issue. Basically, the cohesion of European societies, to which the traditional welfare state has contributed so much, has become a major concern.

The welfare attitudes of European populations play an important role in opening or blocking the way for intended welfare reform measures, while they also strongly affect the social legitimacy of measures taken. This makes it important to know, not only what people’s attitudes are to present-day welfare debates and policies, but also what the public feels about the future of their welfare states.

The European Social Survey modules on welfare attitudes are designed to generate this kind of knowledge. What the first module of 2008 found thus far is, for instance, that in terms of welfare attitudes there seem to be two European worlds: in the Northern-Western part people generally endorse the principle of redistribution and welfare state responsibility for citizen’s well-being and they evaluate positively the way in which these principles are implemented, while in the South and East people as well endorse the principles, but are mostly disappointed about the benefits and services that are actually delivered to them.

As for the general legitimacy of the welfare state, it was found that quite a few Europeans are critical about the moral and economic consequences of welfare provision by the state (e.g. that welfare would make people less responsible for each other and themselves, that welfare would be bad for people’s work ethic and for economic competitiveness), but Europeans even more so see the social advantages of welfare provision (that welfare reduces inequality and stimulates social order, and that welfare provision leads to better quality of life for many).

Given the economic problems, an interesting example of a finding is also that the better the economy fares, the more welfare minded and solidaristic Europeans tend to be. Or, the other way round, and perhaps more telling, in times of economic hardship the wider public in Europe tends to be less in favour of shared solidarity