Welfare Definition Research Paper

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Welfare is typically a term that denotes varying kinds of social spending allocated by governments following industrialization in nation-states. Prior to industrialization, most governments left assistance for the underprivileged to landlords in feudal systems, private organizations, and (primarily) the Catholic Church. Such “poor relief” became known as “welfare” following government intervention in such provisions.

The pairing of government and poor relief can be traced in part to responses to natural disasters—such as earthquakes, fires, and floods—that led monarchical governments to feed people and rebuild homes in order to preserve order. This definition of welfare—providing assistance to those who are otherwise unable to feed, house, or clothe themselves—remains the primary guide to most countries and scholars who study and implement welfare programs. Thus “welfare” is commonly considered to include redistributive policies and programs that enable the disadvantaged to reach some minimal level of existence within a nation-state.

Many nation-states now provide varying levels of housing assistance, income supplementation, in-kind goods and service provision, and public education as part of the welfare state. The programs and policies to provide these aspects of a minimal human existence can vary. For example, income supplementation can consist of cash payments, tax credits, or child-care subsidies. Similarly, in-kind goods and services can include vouchers for food, free or subsidized medical care, and free job training or referral services. Each nation (and in federal systems such as the United States, each state) makes decisions regarding: (1) the financial commitment to make to these programs; (2) the kinds of programs to provide to its poor; and (3) who is eligible to receive aid under the programs.

The comparative welfare-state literature and the public-policy literature have determined that several factors interact in producing fiscal outcomes and programmatic decisions made at the national level. Most of this work has focused on comparing European nations with other developed democracies such as Canada, Australia, and the United States. Other work has also compared Western nations such as these with Asian democracies such as Japan and socialist states such as the former Soviet Union, Cuba, and China. The primary findings from these examinations focus on three types of variables to explain and predict both the level of funding and the kinds of programs that are developed: (1) the system of political institutions in place; (2) the attitudes among the citizenry and policymaking bodies toward the poor; and (3) the level of racial/ethnic heterogeneity within the polity.

The political system comparisons proceed at the national level and focus first upon whether federal systems or unitary systems tend to provide greater redistribution to the poor. In particular, the federal system of the United States has been frequently cited as one reason why the United States lags so far behind most other similarly situated nations in terms of social welfare provision. The United States stands alone among OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations, for example, in its dependence on private health care as 35 percent of total health expenditures. Far smaller and less-developed nations in Europe and in Asia provide universal or near-universal public health coverage. In addition to these systemic differences, comparative welfare-state experts focus on the types of institutional arrangements that may produce different kinds of welfare program provision. For example, states with proportional representation systems have over the course of history had greater influence from left-of-center ideological parties working in coalition governments; winner-take-all electoral systems require far less coalition politics and therefore depress the influence of parties that would seek greater redistribution when they lose elections.

Both systems and institutional arrangements are shaped by the parties that enter power and whether they are required to respond to the electorate in their policymaking decisions. In cases where the electorate plays a significant role in determining the allocation of power, political parties reflect to a large degree mass public opinion regarding the views of the poor. In countries where the electorate views the poor as “trapped in poverty,” more generous and comprehensive welfare programs exist. Where the majority of the electorate views the poor as “lazy,” less generous and comprehensive welfare programs exist. Where moves toward less generous and comprehensive programs succeed, the burden continues to fall on private relief organizations (including religious organizations), as it did prior to industrialization. Although there is a direct correlation between public opinion and welfare policy, such a correlation is also shaped by both the institutional arrangements and the degree of racial/ethnic heterogeneity in the country.

In addition to institutional arrangements and mass public opinion, the degree of racial/ethnic heterogeneity plays a unique role in the provision of welfare benefits at the national level. Racial/ethnic animus has been examined at length in more diverse societies as a factor that depresses the likelihood of generous or comprehensive welfare policy. However, a strict breakdown between ethnically diverse countries and homogenous nations does not explain the variation. In fact, it is those countries with both racial/ethnic diversity and a concentration of poverty among the ethnic/racial minorities that leads to an “anti-solidarity” effect: Both the mass electorate and the parties that represent them are less likely to provide welfare benefits to a subset of the population that is perceived to be undeserving.

In the United States, for example, race- and income-based disparities in the provision of health-care coverage have existed since the founding of the American welfare state with the Social Security Act of 1935, which exempted select industrial sectors employing large numbers of African Americans from old-age salary replacement and medical coverage programs. While federal and state legislation has since outlawed the exclusion of citizens on the basis of race from such programs, race- and income-based disparities in program participation persist.

The cross-national analyses of welfare provision generally tend to focus on states that are capable of providing welfare benefits domestically, whether through capitalist or socialist economic systems. Much less attention has been given in such analyses to the role of international or global organizations that attenuate dire situations in countries that are incapable at the national or local level of providing such services. A separate literature contends with the role of international organizations such as the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations in the provision of welfare benefits to developing nations. Future comparative research can and should integrate these literatures to comprehensively determine the relevant weights of the three factors identified above—the system of political institutions, mass public opinion, and racial/ethnic heterogeneity—to examine how the outcomes of welfare policymaking serve to further stabilize and strengthen democracy, or serve to undermine it.


  1. Colombo, Francesca, and Nicole Tapay. 2004. Private Health Insurance in OECD Countries: The Benefits and Costs for Individuals and Health Systems. OECD Health Working Paper No. 15.
  2. http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/34/56/33698043.pdf.
  3. Esping-Anderson, Gosta. 1990. Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  4. Feldman, Stanley, and John Zaller. 1992. The Political Culture of Ambivalence: Ideological Responses to the Welfare State. American Journal of Political Science 36 (1): 268–307.
  5. Hacker, Jacob. 2006. Inequality, American Democracy, and American Political Science: The Need for Cumulative Research. PS: Political Science and Politics 39: 47–50.
  6. Hancock, Ange-Marie. 2004. The Politics of Disgust: The Public Identity of the “Welfare Queen.” New York: New York University Press.
  7. Lieberman, Robert. 2005. Shaping Race Policy: The United States in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  8. Pontusson, Jonah. 2006. The American Welfare State in Comparative Perspective: Reflections on Alberto Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser, Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe. Perspectives on Politics 4: 315–326.
  9. Skocpol, Theda. 1995. Social Policy in the United States: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  10. Vreeland, James Raymond. 2003. The IMF and Economic Development. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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