Social Europe: Living standards and welfare states, by Richard Berthoud and Maria Iacovou (eds)

Edward Elgar, 2004, 296 pp, hardback, 1 84376 676 0, £59.95. Order this book

This book reviews the findings of a major research programme on family, employment and income dynamics in Europe and draws conclusions about life changes and welfare regimes.

Chapter 1 introduces Esping-Andersen’s welfare regime typology

1. “The ‘social-democratic’ regime type, with generous levels of state support, with benefits based on individual and universal entitlement, and an emphasis on support from the state, rather than the family or the market. This is typified by the Scandinavian countries.

2. The ‘liberal’ regime type, with rather modest levels of benefits and an emphasis on the market as the dominant means of support. Benefits are heavily means-tested to target those most in need. This regime type is prominent in English-speaking countries, and is represented in Europe by the UK and Ireland.

3. The ‘conservative’ regime type, with an emphasis on the central role of the family in support for individuals, with a reduced role for the state, and a predominance of insrance-based benefits. Esping-Andersen includes the countries of continental Europe in this group: the Benelux countries; France, Germany and Austria; plus the southern peninsula countries of Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy” (p.15).

The editors divide the third category into ‘corporatist’ (Benelux, France, Germany and Austria) and ‘residual’ (Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy).

Chapter 2 charts the diversity of family patterns across Europe; chapters 3 and 4 explore the relationshiop between family life and employment at key stages of the life-cycle; chapter 5 examines the trend towards non-standard employment contracts, chapter 6 mobility in and out of work, and chapter 7 the impact of unemployment. Chapter 8 finds both similarities and dissimilarities between different welfare regime types in relation to overall distributional effects (p.197) and to effects on income of particular life events, so “we should be careful not to use the regime-type classification without testing its relevance and appropriateness in light of the issue under study” (p.199).

Chapter 9 studies the dynamics of income poverty and concludes that “poverty is experienced by a far higher number of individuals when viewed longitudinally rather than cross-sectionally,” but that “if we extrapolate from the mean cross-sectional poverty line to an expected experience of poverty on the basis of independence between years in poverty, what we actually see are far fewer people experiencing poverty and a polarisation of persistent poverty. This is important since it suggests an ‘inertia’ to the experience of poverty that can ‘trap’ individuals and households, but the effect varies between countries, with those from more social-democratic and employment-centred regimes being less polarised and closer to expectations based solely on probability theory” (p.221). Thus liberal and residual regimes are shown to increase the risk of persistent poverty (p.221).

Chapter 10 explores the complex relationship between household income and the family’s living standards and finds that persistent poverty is a significant cause of social exclusion but that in different countries different additional factors are also important.

Chapter 11 concludes that comparative cross-national longitudinal research is important.

We can only agree – and suggest that with such a wealth of data it might be possible to abandon the normal three- or four-category characterisation of welfare regimes, and instead rank individual regimes against a range of variables and evaluate the data against each variable in turn. Of particular interest would be the correlations which might result from studying income mobility, stability, security and inequality in relation to the level of universality in the benefits structure of a welfare regime. The researchers would need to develop a measure of the relative universality of a benefits regime. Such a measure might lead to further interesting correlations.