Social Policy in Challenging Times: Economic crisis and welfare systems, edited by Kevin Farnsworth and Zoë Irving

Policy Press, 2011, xi + 335 pp, pbk, 1 847 42827 1, £27.99, hbk, 1 847 42828 8, £70

Whilst in all of the countries studied in this edited collection the welfare state can be regarded as entering a new age of austerity, the picture that emerges is one of diversity: of different kinds of financial crisis in different countries, of different cultural contexts, and of different effects on welfare provision. For instance: ‘Liberal market economies … are least well equipped in both economic buffers and social solidarity to deal with the impact of a crisis in welfare funding because interests are not shared corporately or between social classes’ (p.24).

The first part of the book tackles more general questions. Has the crisis resulted in a shift in the economic paradigm? No: that would require positive action. Has a crisis in financialised capitalism fostered a new economic and social strategy? No: it has resulted in welfare state retrenchment and widening inequality. Are we all in this together? No: there is one strategy for financial institutions, and another for citizens. Is a global social floor a good idea? It’s a better idea than national safety nets. How will relatively young welfare states in the developing world cope with the financial crisis? In Brazil and South Africa, the crisis has led to the expansion of income transfer programmes, and in particular to the inclusion of 16 and 17 year olds (p.104).

The second half of the book studies individual countries. South Korea’s experience of the 1997 crisis suggests that extreme neoliberalism doesn’t work. China’s response to the recent crisis has been to include previously excluded groups in welfare systems. Germany’s small financial sector, and adjustments already made during unification, have meant that the crisis has had a ‘muted’ effect. Ireland’s weak welfare state is suffering retrenchment rather than reform. Iceland’s crisis has seen the neoliberal model questioned. In Scandinavia unemployment has risen, but only slowly. Domestic policy concerns drove the United States’ healthcare reforms, and in neither the United States nor in Canada has the crisis resulted in much welfare state reform. In the UK, the depth of austerity measures is more ideological than necessary.

‘More of the same’ is the picture that emerges: that is, it is long term cultural and ideological factors that determine welfare structures. Whilst the financial crisis might have precipitated minor change, and in some cases it has exacerbated existing trends (especially in the UK and Ireland, and over the extent of punitive measures imposed on the unemployed), it has stimulated little genuine reform. The editors’ concluding chapter extracts a number of ‘solutions’ from the different chapters, but they can’t be said to constitute any kind of package; and their confident conclusion that

What the contributions here demonstrate is not only that emergency events are crucial to both the shaping of social policy, and to the understanding of that process, but also that challenging times are as likely to widen the scope for progressive welfare state-building as they are to diminish it, and that how states respond is a matter of political struggle and political choice (p.278)

isn’t borne out by the evidence.

The strengths of the book are the amount of detailed evidence and the careful analysis in each of the very different chapters; and a particular strength is that the chapter authors don’t draw clear conclusions where there are none to be drawn. A justifiable clear conclusion is Farnsworth’s: that Government policy is bound to increase inequality in the UK. What he might also have said is that reduced withdrawal rates under the new Universal Credit will reduce inequality and will incentivise labour market activity. The lesson to draw is that reduced benefits withdrawal rates and an increase in universal benefits would both reduce inequality and incentivise labour market activity: both outcomes which would enhance the economic outlook and the social fabric.