Welfare and Families in Europe, by Peter Abrahamson, Thomas P. Boje, Bent Greve

Ashgate, 2005, 244 pages, hb, 0 75 464249 6, Order this book

The challenges faced by European welfare states feature prominently both in political discourse and academic research. In a period of accelerating international integration of markets, traditional welfare systems in the developed world are under pressure from a series of economic, cultural and demographic factors. While the authors of this book believe these factors are not enough to consider that European welfare systems are in crisis, they do point out that they are going through a process of intense structural change.

The authors focus their study on the impact of the current processes of structural transformation of European welfare states on work and family. To conduct their analysis they employ a familiar triangular theoretical framework that conceives of welfare regimes as mixes between state, market and civil society. Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France and the United Kingdom are taken as representatives of different welfare mixes and both quantitative and qualitative data are used to examine recent changes and discuss future trends.

There are three main topics framing the several comparative perspectives presented in the book. The first is the change in the pattern of labour market participation, with increased participation by women and a steady reduction of the number of households where there is only one person, usually male, integrated in the formal workforce. The authors also assume that the ‘mixed economy of welfare’ can be identified as ‘the new overall consensus on the future of welfare administration in Europe’ (p. 2) thereby mostly relieving their analysis of the task of dealing with alternative normative perspectives that might take issue with that assumption. The third topic framing the analysis is the set of fiscal constraints deriving from monetary integration and their implications as external pressures for the future of the welfare state. Throughout the book, the authors attempt to ascertain what these three issues mean for different welfare regimes in contemporary Europe.

The authors’ discussion of different welfare models is heavily based on the mixed economy and the triangular perspective mentioned above. It is also focused, as one would expect, on differences in terms of work and family policies. Ultimately, the authors choose to use four variants: a ‘parental welfare model’ associated with France, a ‘male breadwinner model’ associated with Germany (these two being subdivisions of the more standard corporatist model), a ‘residual poverty oriented welfare model’ exemplified by the United Kingdom and a ‘municipal social service state’ associated with Denmark and Sweden. While the reasons laid out for drawing distinctions between the selected welfare regimes are relevant, one does wonder if it wouldn’t be more straightforward just to assume that the study is a comparative analysis of five specific countries. As it stands, the categorical models that are presented tend to appear as a posteriori constructions built to fit the set of previously selected countries included in the study. One could of course argue that all typologies in the ‘welfare modelling business’ necessarily fit to some extent under the previous description. However, the usefulness of such modelling rests to a large extent on providing us with a better understanding of similarities and differences between different groups of welfare regimes along specified dimensions. If the models in question are so specific that they only fit one or a very small number of similar countries the usefulness of such a typology certainly isn’t clear.

In terms of methodology, aggregate data mainly from EU and OECD sources is used for comparing the regimes at the macro level. The core of the analysis however relies on qualitative data (and some specific quantitative data) obtained through interviews of a limited sample of low-income and middle-class households from average sized cities in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France and the United Kingdom (making for a total of ten European neighbourhoods). The information from these interviews is more illustrative than representative given the sampling risks (recognized by the authors) associated with such specific data collection efforts. It therefore seems questionable for the authors to allow themselves to draw general conclusions such as that ‘[their] interviews (…) show that the combined effort of state economic support as a safety net is very important’ (p. 202). Still, the qualitative information provided is of much greater depth than would have been possible by using only data available at the national level and as such it constitutes an interesting effort, as long as proper caution is exercised in deriving conclusions from such material.

Another relevant aspect of the book is the authors’ wish to accommodate feminist concerns and criticisms that permeate the analysis of the relation of social citizenship with family and work patterns. The main emphasis is on women’s increased participation in the labour force and its implications for family and child care structures and policies. Taking the lead from mainstream feminist scholars, the authors assume that the goal of gender equality is a desirable one and proceed to discuss what arrangements in labour markets and welfare systems are more likely to produce that result. Since the authors in fact argue for more flexible arrangements in both the labour and welfare arenas (p. 138) perhaps individual autonomy would be a better way to describe their goal than gender equality.

Although the crucial importance of family and social networks is often mentioned, the potentially disruptive effects of modern welfare systems on those institutions are not discussed. Since, even in the context of strong state economic assistance, family support is generally regarded as crucial, it would be advisable to take into account the possible negative effects of welfare policies in terms of incentives and family cohesion (or at the very least argue why this isn’t a relevant concern). Perhaps the fact that the analysis is largely descriptive and based on the family’s perspectives (as expressed in the interviews) can account for this analytical gap, but the fact is that these concerns remain unaddressed throughout the book. This is by no means a deficiency exclusive to this book as so much of the contemporary literature on welfare regimes appears to rely almost exclusively on measurement and descriptive techniques. It is nevertheless a trend to be regretted. Focusing almost exclusively on quantitative and qualitative depictions may help us to get a better structural picture of society but it will do little to contribute actively to our understanding of those structures.

Despite some shortcomings, Welfare and Families in Europe will be of interest to all those wishing to get an account of the recent evolution and relation between work and family in the five welfare regimes analysed. Although no Citizen’s Income proposals are considered in depth, the book contains some findings that may be of interest to that discussion, particularly regarding the cases of mature industrialized (some may prefer the expression ‘post-modern’) countries in Central and Northern Europe, such as that most families believe state assistance should be given primarily to low-income households.

Andre Alves