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Industrialized nations follow US lead on market-driven welfare reform, says new book by UC Berkeley social welfare professor
30 July 2002

By Carol Hyman, Media Relations

Berkeley - Industrialized nations around the world are adopting the United States' increasingly market-driven approach to providing welfare benefits, according to Neil Gilbert, a professor of social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, in his new book, "Transformation of the Welfare State: The Silent Surrender of Public Responsibility" (Oxford University Press).

While the United States has led the way in back-to-work programs for welfare recipients, many European countries are not far behind. "In Europe, they call this 'social inclusion,'" Gilbert says, "but what that really means is, 'Get back to work.' This is a significant change from the view of benefits as the social rights of citizens."

Even Scandinavian countries, famous for their social programs, are switching to a model Gilbert calls "the enabling state," or public support for private responsibility. For example, Swedish citizens are taking control of investing part of their social security contributions, and the country has adopted a school voucher program.

Gilbert says part of the reason these changes are occurring is that the political left's policies, particularly in Europe, are looking more and more like the policies of its right-wing counterparts. He also believes these changes are not viewed as dramatic because some have been gradual, or are as a result of changes society has no power over. He cites an aging population and globalization of the economy as two major factors causing the shift.

"When taxes are high, businesses move," Gilbert says. "For example, many French people are moving to London because the taxes are lower." Businesses also flock to countries where wages are lower, and because information technology has advanced, it is possible for businesses to locate almost anywhere in the world.

Gilbert says the breakdown of the family is another reason for these changes. He believes that in a market-driven society, parents are given financial incentives to put their children in daycare and work outside the home. He again cites Sweden as an example of a society that will pay close to $12,000 a year per child for daycare, but will not pay a parent that amount, or any amount, to stay home with a child. He acknowledges that many companies have some family-friendly policies, including extended leave for new parents, but there is no encouragement - in fact, there are disincentives - for a parent to stay home to rear a child.

Growing mistrust of the government has also added to changes in welfare policy. "The idea that the government can do something well has lost its credibility," Gilbert says. But he feels the shrinking of government welfare programs does a disservice to several segments of society, including parents and those unable to work due to illness or disability.

The last segment of Gilbert's book delves into the social implications of these changes in welfare policies. He writes,"...the declining role of the state and the primacy of the free-market ethos in shaping the future course of social welfare poses some troubling implications for the moral character and benevolence of modern day society in the global world." Gilbert calls for what he considers truly family-friendly policies, such as incentives for a parent to stay home to rear a child.

He also calls for a promotion of public service. "National service," he writes, "might rapidly become a normative rite of passage for young people if colleges and universities encouraged (or even required) applicants to take a year after their graduation from high school to experience the obligations and rewards of active citizenship."

While Gilbert does not purport to have presented solutions to temper what he calls "the state's zeal for market-oriented reforms," his hope is to bring to the forefront the challenges that lie ahead so that leaders can develop more compassionate, well-balanced approaches to join social purpose and economic productivity.

Publication of this book was a result of a number of years of research and study Gilbert conducted in conjunction with leading social welfare scholars throughout the industrialized world, and as part of his work with the International Social Security Association in Geneva. He also collected data from numerous sources including the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization of industrialized countries based in Paris.

Gilbert is UC Berkeley's Milton and Gertrude Chernin Professor of Social Welfare and co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy.