Welfare States and Public Opinion: Perceptions of Healthcare Systems, Family Policy and Benefits for the Unemployed and Poor in Europe

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Welfare States and Public Opinion: Perceptions of Healthcare Systems, Family Policy and Benefits for the Unemployed and Poor in Europe

By Claus Wendt, Monika Mischke, & Michaela Pfeifer (2011)

Reviewed by Cynthia R. Jasper and Emily Lupton Metrish

Welfare state is a term used to refer to a state in which the government is strongly involved in the lives of its citizens through subsidized healthcare, education, and other benefits. In recent debates in the United States over healthcare, the modern European tradition of the welfare state has become a touchstone for Americans struggling to answer the questions: To what extent have the economies and populations of European countries benefited from these policies? What have the detriments been? and To what extent do we want the government of the U.S. to resemble European governments? In Welfare States and Public Opinion, Wendt, Mischke, and Pfeifer explore the European side of these and related issues from the perspective of public opinion of social policy.

Recent decades have proven tumultuous for European countries. With financial hardships stemming from the global economic recession and banking problems prompting the introduction of austerity measures in several European Union countries, Europeans have seen cuts and revisions to many areas of social expenditure, leading some to question the long-term sustainability of the welfare state. The authors draw on data from a number of sources spanning the first decade of the 21st century to "draw a stronger link between welfare state institutions and public perception of social and health policy" (p. 8) in 15 European countries. They examine three specific areas: healthcare, family policy (e.g., maternity and paternity leave programs), and working-aged protections (e.g., unemployment benefits). Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a certain amount of self-interest among citizens such that approval levels are generally higher across socioeconomic groups for programs that affect everyone (e.g., healthcare) and lower for programs that affect only limited groups (e.g., unemployment benefits). Yet there is some solidarity among socioeconomic groups and a general agreement "that public support of the deserving needy should have priority" (p. 4).

Little prior work has been done comparing institutional structures across countries and their effect on public support; here, the authors use an approach driven by institutional theory. By "linking the macro level (social policy institutions) and the micro level (public opinion)," the authors "[help] to identify social policy measures that receive particularly high levels of public support" (p. …