Book Review: The real worlds of welfare

Goodin, R. Headey, B., Muffels, R & Dirven, H. The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Cambridge University, Cambridge. pp.358.

Review published  Australian Journal of Social Issues. Vol 35. No. 2, May 2000.

Robert Goodin and his fellow authors have succeeded in writing a very readable book which compares the social welfare systems of the United States, the Netherlands and Germany. Many Australian human service workers might think to themselves “How nice but what has that got to do with us?”

The book does indeed have considerable relevance to the situation on the ground in many Australian employment, training and welfare agencies. It should become a useful text in human service undergraduate and post graduate programs. This is particularly so as the current Government in this country is becoming increasingly preoccupied with “mutual obligation”, “social coalitions”, “social contracts”, its self created myth of “welfare dependency” and decreasing social welfare budget outlays.

The three countries covered in this book were chosen because there was a decade of comparable panel data available which allowed the authors to explore issues of economic growth, efficiency, poverty, inequality, social integration, stability and autonomy. In addition the United States welfare state represents the liberal form, the German a corporatist regime and the Dutch a social democratic style of welfare.

As this is not a review of a detective story I can reveal Goodin et al conclusions about their comparison of these different welfare states without spoiling your enjoyment of the book. They make the point that frequently in social policy debates it is asserted that there is an inevitability of trade offs between economic growth, efficiency, poverty, inequality, social integration, stability and autonomy. But what they found was the Dutch social democratic welfare regime equalled or exceeded the performance of the corporatist Germans and the liberal US system “across all these social and economic objectives.”

Such findings have considerable relevance to directions an informed Australian nation would choose to take as it sets out to change its system of welfare services. The Australian welfare state might once have had considerable social democratic aspects but has, in recent times (along with New Zealand), moved closer to the US liberal regime.

The careful cross country analysis of panel data presented by Goodin et al allows researchers to follow real people’s experiences of work and welfare. In the past cross country analysts have been forced to compare aggregated statistical samples. Importantly, the Goodin et al look at individuals has found that it is an exceedingly small percentage of people who remain on welfare indefinitely under any of the systems investigated.

This finding flies in the face of the current Australian Government and Federal Opposition’s preoccupation with “welfare dependency”. Those of us who have been researching social citizenship, Basic Income and unemployment have long appreciated that “welfare dependency” rhetoric as utilised by Newman, Howard, Swan, Abbot and Latham is just a verbal weapon with which to savage unemployed people and a useful tool in the struggle to delegitimise the Australian welfare state. Unfortunately “welfare dependency” as rhetoric will remain powerful because it provides the uncaring with a justification for their punitive treatment of the unemployed and other social security recipients.

The above is just one example of the usefulness of Goodin and his fellow writers analysis. There are many other insights to be gained from the numerous tabulations and graphs in this book by those interested in moving the Australian welfare state back towards a more caring and comprehensive regime.

But the really important message from this book is that whether one is seeking to promote economic growth and efficiency, stability, autonomy or to decrease poverty and inequality then the social democratic welfare state along the lines of the Netherlands exceeds the performance of the German corporatist or the US liberal regimes.