The Institutional Logic of Welfare Attitudes, by Christian Albrekt Larsen

Ashgate, 2006, 184 pp, hbk, 0 7546 4857 5, £45

It’s not that public attitudes to welfare determine welfare policy; rather, welfare policy determines public attitudes. That is the evidence-based conclusion of this important book.

Following an introductory chapter, chapter 2 recognises that we now expect change in welfare regimes, and that public debate about the justice and appropriateness of welfare structures is an increasingly important factor in their design ( – though given the lack of public debate about tax credits before they were introduced in the UK, a somewhat more nuanced conclusion might have been appropriate). Chapter 3 studies national surveys of values and norms in relation to different countries’ welfare regimes, and finds a correlation between welfare regime and attitudes towards salary differentials between skilled and unskilled workers (a factor chosen because it is likely to tell us how people feel about redistribution of income). Chapter 4 suggests that ‘the degree to which the poor and unemployed fulfil a number of so-called ‘deservingness’ criteria could be the missing link between welfare regimes and the cross-national differences in attitudes [towards them]’ (p.45). The regime which Larsen knows best is the Scandinavian one, in which a raft of universal healthcare, educational and pension benefits means that there’s little sense of there being different groups with different deservingness levels in society – as opposed to the liberal American system of fractured provision in which ‘the poor and unemployed ….. will be asked to fulfil much harder deservingness criteria’ (p.55).

Further chapters discuss the European context (in which discussion of the welfare state’s sustainability has complicated policy attitudes), and stigmatisation of groups selected for social assistance in less universal welfare regimes.

The author concludes that ‘the perception of the poor and unemployed [is] most negative in liberal [means-tested and selective] regimes (maybe moderated by the fact that the recipients really are in need), more positive in conservative [i.e., contributory] regimes (especially caused by the modest job opportunities), and most positive in social democratic [more universal] regimes (maybe moderated by the fact that many of the potential poor have rather good living conditions)’ (p.141).

There is good control for variables other than welfare regime ( – variables such as gender, ethnicity, age, education, etc.), but more detailed discussion of the notion of causality and of the difficulty of determining the extent of it in each direction when feedback loops are present would have been welcome.

This is an important study. If it is the case that welfare structure determines public attitudes (even if not wholly), then it is more important to examine reform proposals objectively in the light of their likely economic, employment market and quality of life effects than it is to ask whether they will be acceptable to public opinion. The reformed structure will change public opinion in its own favour once it is in place; and if the reform removes boundaries between different groups in society then public opinion towards previously stigmatised groups will change.