As left veers right, Europe’s welfare policies change too
New book chronicles the Continent’s shift to publicly supported back-to-work programs

By Carol Hyman, Public Affairs

15 August 2002 | Industrialized nations around the world are adopting the United States’ increasingly market-driven approach to providing welfare benefits, according to Neil Gilbert, a Berkeley professor of social welfare, in his new book, “Transformation of the Welfare State: The Silent Surrender of Public Responsibility” (Oxford University Press).

While the United States has led the way in back-to-work programs for welfare recipients, many European countries are not far behind.

“In Europe, they call this ‘social inclusion,’” Gilbert says, “but what that really means is, ‘Get back to work.’ This is a significant change from the view of benefits as the social rights of citizens.”

Even Scandinavian countries, famous for their social programs, are switching to a model Gilbert calls “the enabling state,” or public support for private responsibility. For example, Swedish citizens are taking control of investing part of their social security contributions, and the country has adopted a school-voucher program.

Gilbert says part of the reason these changes are occurring is that the political left’s policies, particularly in Europe, are looking more and more like the policies of its right-wing counterparts. He also believes these changes are not viewed as dramatic because some have been gradual, or are a result of changes society has no power over. He cites an aging population and globalization of the economy as two major factors causing the shift.

“When taxes are high, businesses move,” says Gilbert, who is the Milton and Gertrude Chernin Professor of Social Welfare and co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy. “For example, many French people are moving to London because the taxes are lower.”

Businesses also flock to countries where wages are lower, and because information technology has advanced, it is possible for businesses to locate almost anywhere in the world.

Gilbert says the breakdown of the family is another reason for these changes. He believes that in a market-driven society, parents are given financial incentives to put their children in daycare and work outside the home. He again cites Sweden as an example of a society that will pay close to $12,000 a year per child for daycare, but will not pay a parent any amount to stay home with a child.

Growing popular mistrust of the government has also contributed to changes in welfare policy. “The idea that the government can do something well has lost its credibility,” Gilbert observes. But he feels the shrinking of government welfare programs does a disservice to several segments of society, including parents and those who are unable to work due to illness or disability.

The last segment of Gilbert’s book delves into the social implications of these changes in welfare policies. “[T]he declining role of the state and the primacy of the free-market ethos in shaping the future course of social welfare,” he writes, “poses some troubling implications for the moral character and benevolence of modern day society in the global world.”


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