At the Margins of the Welfare State: Social assistance and the alleviation of poverty in Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom, by Christina Behrendt

Ashgate, 2002, xiv + 244 pp., hb., 0 7546 1996 6, £42.50. Order this book

This book tackles a fundamental issue facing welfare states in developed countries: Why, when so much is spent on poverty alleviation, is poverty still so prevalent? – and it tackles the question by examining minimum income schemes. As the author says, “these schemes are explicitly designed for the purpose of alleviating poverty and are ultimately responsible for guaranteeing an adequate standard of living” (p.2). The author is correct to suggest that other aspects of welfare states have been at the centre of academic attention – mainly the overall design of tax and benefit regimes, and social insurance systems. Her focus is means-tested safety nets in Germany, Sweden and the UK, and the book is packed with information and commentary. For any student specialising in this particular aspect of welfare states, this book is now the place to start. It will also be helpful to a wider category of students in terms of its discussion of methods for studying social policy and its impact.

The results suggest that in none of the countries considered has the safety net proved effective. One chapter asks whether this might be due to problems with the data or with the definitions of poverty, but most of the book asks about the design of the systems and the ways in which other social realities might affect outcomes. “Three possible causes may explain the ineffectiveness of minimum income schemes in the alleviation of poverty: some groups of the population may not be entitled to receive benefits from these schemes; benefits may not be generous enough to push households over the poverty line; or benefits are not fully taken up by the eligible population” (p.11). Thus means-tested schemes are tested for eligibility, adequacy and take-up. In none of the three countries considered is eligibility strictly universal; in the United Kingdom benefit levels are not adequate; and take-up is poor, especially in Germany and Sweden – and here the design of the schemes is the problem, and particularly the intrusiveness of means-testing. Behrendt recommends that in Sweden, with high benefit levels but few disregards, benefit levels should be lower and disregards higher in order to encourage take-up. In the UK, she recommends higher benefit levels. In Germany, she recommends the abolition of extended-family liability, and a reduction in administrative discretion. A particularly important recommendation is that systems should be designed so as to facilitate entry into and exit from the system, and this requires disregards for earned income.

The book certainly fills a gap, and it is a thorough and accessible study of a little-researched field, and should be in every social policy library. (It’s a pity it’s not cheaper. A paperback edition would enable students of income maintenance policy to own their own copies so that they could refer to them as necessary).

What is needed now is another book, and I hope that the author will provide it. The book under consideration is correctly entitled ‘At the Margins of the Welfare State’. That is: minimum income (means-tested) schemes are after-thoughts needed to patch up what’s not working. But these after-thoughts affect the ways in which policy is made about social insurance and universal benefits, and social insurance schemes and universal benefits affect the ways in which minimum income schemes are designed and operate. So what we need now is a volume which studies the relationships between social insurance, universal benefits (such as Child Benefit) and means-tested systems, the ways in which they impact on each other, and the ways in which the relationships between them affect labour market participation. To study minimum income schemes on their own gives a useful picture but only half a picture. Also, study of different systems together would bring the UK’s tax credits into view. Behrendt doesn’t deal with these, presumably having decided that they are not a means-tested benefit; but they are, of course, and they pose many of the problems faced by other means-tested benefits and also additional problems, such as the difficulties of employer administration and the complexities faced by people with rapidly-changing employment status.

To tackle the different parts of the system together would lead Behrendt to consider reform on a wider canvas. By choosing to tackle means-tested benefits on their own she is automatically led into discussing reforms to means-tested benefits. To discuss the system as a whole would lead her to suggest reforms relating to the balance between the means-tested, universal and social insurance elements of a system. Such a project would not be simple, because it would be far from easy to create an orderly and accessible conceptual structure within which to marshal the relevant data and to discuss it; but it would result in a book well worth reading. We commend the project to author and publisher.