Welfare Practices, Institutional Policies and the Dismantling of the Social State

Manifestation du 5 décembre 2019 (pour la défense des retraites), Paris, France, December 5, 2019 | © Courtesy of Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr.
Manifestation du 5 décembre 2019 (pour la défense des retraites), Paris, France, December 5, 2019 | © Courtesy of Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr.

As Philipp Sandermann (2014) indicates in his opening chapter, this edited volume adopts «welfare practices» as a heuristic term that represents a broader idea of Western welfare state reality, covering public assistance and social insurance alike. The contributors take different views on the development of Western welfare practices, depending on their particular focus and individual perspective. Every chapter reflects on both changes and continuities in the welfare practices it investigates, aiming thereby to sketch out a broader conceptual notion of Western welfare state settings more generally.

A Blog Post by Pablo Markin.

As a starting point, in the first chapter John Clarke raises the question of what a welfare state is. He observes that, in the face of evidence to the contrary suggesting an unshakable growth in most Western welfare states, in recent decades some major studies have proclaimed the end of the Western welfare state model as such. He concludes that this tendency normalizes a trans-fer of responsibility from the public sector to private settings, ideologically naturalizing bonds of affection, obligation, and future-oriented investment, and can therefore be regarded as a dominant change in Western welfare practices that accompanies the patterns of continuity and growth highlighted early in his chapter.

Tendencies of familialization, responsibilization, and future-oriented in-vestment are also the focus of Sigrid Leitner’s contribution. However, she chooses a different perspective to reflect on continuity and changes in Western welfare state settings, and opens Part II of the volume with an explicitly comparative approach. Her chapter addresses the national contexts of child care and elder care in Austria, Belgium, France, and Germany—four examples of «conservative» welfare capitalist regimes. Leitner asks how far the four cases differ in terms of their elder care and child care policies and their institutionalization of those policies.

Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore provide the book’s second comparative perspective. The two authors depict the rise of the conditional cash transfer programs that have spread to every continent of the world since the late 1990s, whereby they try to establish a more transnational ap-proach to identifying continuity and change in Western welfare practices. But this very spread raises the question of whether Peck and Theodore’s chapter is really about only «Western» welfare state settings. That question goes to the heart of their study. They pursue it by underlining the role of the World Bank and other multilateral development agencies that refer to utilitarian and responsibilizing ideologies in public assistance policy.

These can certainly be defined in historical terms as «Western,» suggesting that the practices considered by Peck and Theodore are «Western» even when they do not occur entirely within Western welfare state settings. As the case of Brazil impressively shows, there is a difference between researching programmatic turns and researching their transfer into practice. Richard Münchmeier completes Part II, and chooses a third way of com-paring different national set-ups within Western welfare state settings, namely the United States and Germany. Adopting Piven and Cloward’s an-alytical framework on the function of public welfare policies in the United States, he examines two points: firstly, historical differences in the development of welfare practices between Germany and the United States, and secondly, the recent changes in German welfare provision. In his study of this second issue, Münchmeier focuses on the question of whether or not the «Hartz IV» reform in Germany marked the beginning of a new era for the German welfare state and thus ushered in an «Americanization» of welfare practices in Germany.

Part III of this volume comprises three case studies on continuity and change in selected Western welfare state settings. The analyses in this part of the book offer a different perspective by concentrating on single nation-al contexts. Robert P. Fairbanks II explores welfare state transformation in two post-industrial U.S. cities: Philadelphia and Chicago. Fairbanks’s research goal is to understand the nexus of urban poverty survival strategies and the implementation of social welfare policy and practice reforms, as embodied by the lived experience of addiction and recovery. Using the Philadelphia recovery house and the Sheridan Correctional Center as sites of ethnographic analysis, Fairbanks explores the ways in which drug and alcohol recovery—from its most informal inception in the self-help realm to state monitoring in prison and parole—works as an ancillary modality of poverty management to reinvent urban welfare practices in the twenty-first century.

In the second chapter of Part III, Philipp Sandermann firstly questions the popular analysis that claims we can interpret current changes in welfare practices adequately as a move towards «post-welfarism,» or—in its specific German version—a move towards post-welfare statism. Sandermann argues that this analysis lacks a clear theoretical delimitation of what actually constitutes a «welfare state,» «social work,» or—to use the heuristic term of this volume—«welfare practices.»

In contrast, Sandermann outlines an approach to understanding welfare practices as practices of a specific welfare system; he draws on basic arguments of con-temporary systems theory to critically examine important questions around change in the German welfare state setting. At the same time, this chapter specifically brings together various analytic factors of welfare, or welfare state, development to describe the current state of the German welfare system as a combination of both change and continuity. Vincent Dubois completes the third part of the volume with an analysis of practices among clients and agents in French welfare offices.

He draws on his own ethnographic research on the relationships between agents and recipients at the front desks of family benefit offices to show the importance of these face-to-face administrative interactions. Dubois makes the point that such interactions are gaining in importance in line with the unprecedented decline in objective social rights and the worsening of socio-economic problems. The concrete welfare practices co-produced by agents and recipients at the front desks of welfare offices are therefore far from being neutral routines of policy implementation. Instead, Dubois argues, the relational and bureaucratic work in welfare offices constitutes the very core of welfare practices.

Written by Philipp Sandermann (2014)

Edited by Pablo Markin

Featured Image Credits: Manifestation du 5 décembre 2019 (pour la défense des retraites), Paris, France, December 5, 2019 | © Courtesy of Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr.


Sandermann, Philipp. Change and Continuity in Western Welfare Practices: Some Introductory Comments. In Sandermann, Philipp, ed., The End of Welfare as We Know It? Verlag Barbara Budrich, 2014, pp. 9-18. Accessed February 21, 2020. https://openresearchlibrary.org/content/363f93cb-6cf9-40f3-a3d7-08ce9d55c886.

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