Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Social Capital and the Functioning of Welfare Systems

Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Social Capital and the Functioning of Welfare Systems

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The aim of this research is to make some reflections on the role that social capital can have in processes of welfare system reform and innovation.

The Europe 2020 program aims at creating a Europe that is more consolidated and inclusive through policies that bring about higher employment rates and combat poverty and social exclusion.

As to the achievement these objectives, the 27 countries of the European Union have very different social and economic conditions, as is the amount of social capital that each country can implement.

The Europe 2020 program is informed by the profound crisis that affected European systems of welfare since the end of the 1980s; a crisis that is rooted in the globalization of markets, in the loss of competitiveness of businesses and in processes of deindustrialization. The significant changes occurring in European markets, and especially in the labour market, along with changes in the demographic structure of the population (characterized by wide-ranging processes of ageing and low fertility rates) have put into question the sustainability of the European development model, which was informed by a balance between economic growth and redistributive equity. At the same time, these changes forced all European countries to rethink their welfare systems (Esping-Andersen 1999, Hemerijck 2008). Despite the appearance of immobility, most European countries effectuated polices aimed at reducing social security expenditures, acting particularly on the pension system (ie. raising the retirement age), making labour more flexible in order to lower costs, introducing private insurance plans and entrusting the market to the so-called "social economy" for the production of many services (Evers and Wintersberger 1988; Powell and Barrientos 2004). This situation became even more critical once again starting in 2008 when the financial crisis exploded, forcing governments to effectuate even more restrictive economic, fiscal and social policies. In this phase, dramatic differences emerged between countries that were capable of facing the the two phases of the crisis, in terms of speed and political ability (especially in the Mediterranean area) and countries that introduced reforms whose effects came about too slowly, or that introduced non-coordinated policies among the different sectors, for which it is difficult to evaluate the impact in terms of efficacy and efficiency (Hemerijck and Vanderbrouke 2012).

The achievement of objectives of Europa 2020, must also take into account the different impacts that the profound economic and financial crisis has had on various national realities. The crisis has forced many countries to re-evaluate spending policies -often in restrictive terms - and it has reduced or completely impeded the possibility of investing in social spending in some countries.

In this phase of profound structural and political change a new cultural dimension provided by social capital becomes strategic: social capital that can be considered an indicator of the level of social cohesion (Berger-Schmitt 2000) and therefore of the level of acceptance or refusal of social policies that require many sacrifices by citizens. In an analysis of functioning mechanisms of welfare systems, social capital can be included as a new intervening variable that, depending on perspectives, is considered a "condition" for the proper functioning of a system or an "effect" of its proper functioning.

The creation of a protective institutional network for citizens to combat the most important social risks that are not under individual control (old age, poverty, disability-inability, unemployment etc.), the provision of services to promote better opportunities for all (e.g. Education) and the reduction of dependence of citizens on the family-community network of support (health, reception and assistance facilities) all strongly influence not only the collective quality of life, but also the trajectories of the lives of individuals, their life plans, the possibility to realize these plans and die way in which individuals relate to others and to political and social institutions. …

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