Academic journal article German Policy Studies

Policy Frames and Coalition Dynamics in the Recent Reforms of Swiss Family Policy

Academic journal article German Policy Studies

Policy Frames and Coalition Dynamics in the Recent Reforms of Swiss Family Policy

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

When it comes to social policy development, Switzerland has always been a laggard in international comparison. Whereas most other OECD countries have seen rapid growth of the welfare state during the post-war decades of welfare state expansion, social policy was still very limited in Switzerland up until the 1970s. In international comparisons, the Swiss welfare state was therefore often qualified as 'liberal' or 'residual' (e.g. Esping-Andersen 1990). From the late 1970s onwards, however, social policy in Switzerland has gradually expanded, bringing the country closer to the ideal type of a continental European welfare state (Armingeon 2001). This catch-up effect first affected the traditional social policy schemes such as unemployment insurance (which became compulsory only in 1984), occupational pensions (in 1985), as well as health insurance (in 1994). Family policy benefits, by contrast, remained on a very modest level and care services were virtually non-existent until the late 1990s. It was only at the turn of the millennium that a series of successful reforms gave a boost to Swiss family policy. The most important reforms include the implementation of a federal program to subsidize childcare infrastructure (in 2003), the introduction of compulsory maternity insurance (in 2005), as well as a nationwide harmonization and--in some of the cantons--increase of family allowances (in 2006). Observers seeking to explain why the development of Swiss social policy lags behind the pack (Armingeon 2001: 152) generally point to the specific institutional and political features that characterize Switzerland. For instance, Bonoli (2007: 767) nicely shows how the development of legislation in the field of social policy was "institutionally delayed" by direct democracy, federalism and the interaction between the two. Direct democracy was a major brake to public sector expansion, as voters tend to oppose new taxes. The introduction of a maternity insurance, for instance, was rejected no less than four times at the polls in direct democratic referenda between 1984 and 1999. Due to federalism, the central state is weak, and therefore unable to propel the development of social policy--unless a constitutional change (subject to referendum) explicitly assigns to it competences and resources that are required. Family policy is until to-day mainly organized at the cantonal and the local levels. Until the harmonization in 2006, the cantonal differences, e.g. in the level of child allowances, were as large as between the most generous and the most liberal European countries (Hausermann 2007).

On the political dimension, the power balance between political parties in Switzerland is unfavorable to welfare state development. Both in Nordic and in Continental countries (Esping-Andersen 1990; van Kersbergen 1994), Social Democrats and Christian Democrats were the major driving forces of welfare state development. In Switzerland, both of them have always been weaker than in the neighbouring countries, and they traditionally faced a dominant market-liberal party, which opposed welfare state expansion in general and family policy expansion in particular. Under this strong liberal influence, the Swiss Christian Democrats also played a somewhat more cautious role than Christian Democrats in other Bismarckian countries, such as Germany or the Netherlands, where they were usually among the main drivers of (transfer-oriented) family policy (van Kersbergen 1994). An additional political impediment--especially in the field of family policy--was the weakness of the feminist movement during much of the 20th century, due among other factors to the belated introduction of female suffrage in 1971 (Martin 2002).

The growth of the Swiss welfare state since the 1970s, however, and in particular the introduction of new family policy schemes since the late 1990s, raise questions with regard to the factors that may explain these developments. …

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