The Ends and Means of Welfare: Coping with Economic and Social Change in Australia by Peter Saunders

Article excerpt

In his book The Ends and Means of Welfare, Australian economist Peter Saunders attempts to move from a "welfare sociology" to a "sociology of the welfare state" (or, more precisely, to a sociologically sensitised "political economy of welfare"). His research is concerned with the operations of the welfare state and attempts to locate it within the wider functioning of the economy and society. The New Zealand comparison that leaps to mind is with the (late great) Royal Commission on Social Policy (1988), which attempted to fulfil a grander purpose: not only to examine the New Zealand welfare state, but to completely rework the institutional design of New Zealand society. Whatever the lessons researchers in New Zealand might draw from the Australian welfare experience, or from Saunders's analysis of that experience, I hope that the main impetus we gain from his book is to think more broadly about the welfare state, perhaps using the wider framework Saunders develops.

Such a broad perspective cannot avoid confrontation with political perspectives, and nor can they be entirely avoided in this review-essay. However, the position taken must be to faithfully report the voices of the people in relation to welfare issues. These voices are, in this book, expressed through survey data. The difficulty, though, is that the voices of the people are constrained to some degree by the sampling, the framing of questions and the data analysis of any study. Moreover, community attitudes must be interpreted in some depth, bearing in mind the experiences and institutional frameworks that shaped their formation, and being alert to the differences among different social groupings. The only guard against importing incorrect findings or argumentation is the rigours of the academic arena, although critical academic attention is not easily brought to bear on a particular research project or policy argument.

THE SCOPE AND CENTRAL THREAD

The crux of Saunders's concern is crisply delivered in his preface. While there is some evidence of increasing economic prosperity in Australia, this is accompanied by signs of increasing social difficulty. Yet the welfare-reform political agenda (alongside the neo-liberal or economic-rationalist political agenda for reforming the Australian economy) focuses mainly on shrinking the welfare state.

   After more than a decade of intensive reform, the Australian welfare
   system is still seen by those driving the neo-liberal economic
   reform agenda as an obstacle whose shape and purpose need to conform
   to the new reform imperatives. The focus has shifted away from the
   powerful distributional effect of welfare to its alleged detrimental
   effects on incentives, yet an increasing proportion of the
   population is reliant on welfare benefits to supplement increasingly
   insecure and dispersed market incomes. The issue of "welfare
   dependency" ... has emerged as the main focus of the welfare reform
   agenda. (p.vi)

This narrow focus of public attention has been reinforced by the media: controversially, Saunders suggests that such focusing constitutes "manipulation" by the media.

The question remains as to whether it is possible for economic means by themselves to deliver social goals. Since this approach seems not to be working in contemporary Australia, it is timely and important, according to Saunders, to redesign a welfare state that might not only be better at delivering its services in line with widely shared goals, but that would retain wider citizen support.

To redesign the welfare system, much expertise needs to be brought to bear. The Australian welfare reform focus is too narrow to allow consideration of the extent to which broader goals, such as social cohesion, are being achieved. Moreover, the complexity of the welfare system is inadequately comprehended by narrow economic frameworks that fail to embrace "the issues with which it deals, its avenues of response, its design and impact, its technicalities and judgements, its economics and sociology, its history and institutions, its programs and politics" (p. …