In recent years a number of European countries have remodeled their welfare state systems, shifting from a transfer-oriented model toward a social investment-oriented model, which emphasizes investments in human capital formation. Despite popular support for these reforms, critics argue the new model can potentially be less effective in mitigating inequality as these policies could disproportionately benefit middle and upper-class citizens rather than those in lower income brackets. What can public opinion research tell us about the support behind this shift in policy priorities?
Education and the welfare state in advanced democracies
Currently, welfare states in advanced democracies face a number of daunting challenges: demographic changes, in particular population aging, accompany higher levels of spending on pensions and health care; the aftershocks of the global financial crisis are still felt in many countries, particularly in Southern Europe; and structural socioeconomic changes are transforming economies from an emphasis on manufacturing to services in the new knowledge economy. In this new setting, investments in human capital play a crucial role, both at the individual as well as at the societal level.“There is growing public support for reorienting welfare states from a passive, transfer-oriented model toward an investment- and future-oriented model.”
At the individual level, people invest in their own education to ensure their continuous employment and to obtain better wages. At the societal level, policymakers support investments in education to promote economic development as well as social inclusion. Current academic debates about the future of the social investment model1For an overview of this debate, see Anton Hemerijck, ed., The Uses of Social Investment (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). reflect this widespread support for increased investments in education. There is growing public support for reorienting welfare states from a passive, transfer-oriented model toward an investment- and future-oriented model. This reorientation implies a significant redefinition of the main purpose of the welfare state. In the classical transfer-oriented welfare state model, individuals are compensated via social transfers after a social risk has already materialized. For instance, unemployed people receive unemployment benefits. The social investment welfare state, in contrast, invests in the education and further training of individuals in order to prevent them from becoming unemployed in the first place.
Even though the social investment turn has widespread support among citizens and policymakers, critics point out that too strong a focus on it, instead of compensatory social transfers, might exacerbate inequality rather than mitigate it.2See, for instance, Bea Cantillon, “The Paradox of the Social Investment State: Growth, Employment and Poverty in the Lisbon Era,” Journal of European Social Policy 21, no. 5 (2011): 432–449. Indeed, research has found that well-educated and wealthy middle-class households benefit disproportionately from social investment policies: for instance, middle- and upper-class parents are more likely to send their children to formal daycare institutions,3Emanuele Pavolini and Wim Van Lancker, “The Matthew Effect in Childcare Use: A Matter of Policies or Preferences?” Journal of European Public Policy 25, no. 6 (2018): 878–893. allowing them to pursue dual-income careers, thus widening the gap between rich and poor. In a similar manner, well-educated children with middle-class backgrounds benefit strongly from public subsidies to and investments in academic higher education.
Therefore, from a political perspective, the critical question regarding the potential of the social investment model to mitigate inequalities is whether the recent transformation of many (mostly European) welfare states toward this model represents a genuine re-orientation toward a model that benefits all or whether it should be regarded as selective responsiveness to the needs of the well-educated and wealthy middle and upper classes. In this short essay, I address this question from the perspective of public opinion research, making use of a novel dataset collected in the context of the INVEDUC project (“Investing in Education in Europe: Attitudes, Politics and Policies”), located at the University of Konstanz, Germany.4The INVEDUC project was financed with a “Starting Grant” from the European Research Council, Grant No. 311769.
Public opinion on education and social investment policies“This dataset…provides a comparative account of citizens’ attitudes and preferences regarding public support for the social investment model of the welfare state.”
The INVEDUC project team conducted a representative survey of public opinion on education and social investment policies in eight Western European countries: Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. The field period of the survey was in 2014. This dataset, for the first time, provides a comparative account of citizens’ attitudes and preferences regarding public support for the social investment model of the welfare state.
Figure 1 shows the relative share of the population in the respective countries who express agreement or strong agreement with a number of hypothetical welfare state reforms. Support for the social investment model is measured by agreement with reform proposals that emphasize expanding and improving early childhood education, increasing investments in universities and research, and allowing the unemployed to refine their skills to improve their job prospects. Furthermore, respondents were confronted with a number of contrasting reform proposals that capture the spirit of the passive transfer-oriented model, for instance, whether they favored increasing pensions over wages and lowering the retirement age. Finally, respondents were asked for their agreement to proposals based on the “workfare” model that ties benefits to certain conditions, such as forcing the unemployed to accept a job regardless of how beneficial it is for them.5The INVEDUC survey asked the following questions of respondents regarding welfare state policies in this order: “forcing unemployed to accept a job quickly, even if it is not as good as their previous job”; “giving the unemployed more time and opportunities to improve their qualification before they are required to accept a job”; “expanding access to early childhood education and improving its quality”; “increasing old age pensions to a higher degree than wages”; “investing more money in university education and research at universities”; “lowering the statutory retirement age and facilitating early retirement.”
Figure 1: Support for different kinds of welfare state reforms across eight Western European countries.6Source: Julian L. Garritzmann, Marius R. Busemeyer, and Erik Neimanns, “Public Demand for Social Investment: New Supporting Coalitions for Welfare State Reform in Western Europe?” Journal of European Public Policy 25, no. 6 (2018): 854. The data displayed in Figure 1 shows that social investment policy reforms receive the highest overall support (see right-most panel in the lower row). Seventy-five percent of respondents from all countries in the survey agree or strongly agree with the social investment reform proposals, compared to merely 48 percent of agreement with the transfer-oriented proposals, and 59 percent agreement with the workfare policy.
The figure also shows a significant degree of cross-national variation. Even though the cross-national patterns are not entirely clear-cut, there is a significant degree of support among citizens for welfare state policies that differ from the current system in their respective countries. This indicates that public opinion can both be and become an important driving force to support progressive policy change.
For instance, in the Southern European countries surveyed, citizen support for social inv articular Scandinavia, Southern European welfare states lag behind in expanding the investment pillar of the welfare state. The INVEDUC data show citizens themselves very much demand these reforms, indicating that the obstacles to reform are the failure of policymaking elites to respond to these demands. Another—perhaps more surprising—finding is that support for the workfare reform proposal is rather high on average and particularly high in France (62 percent agreement) and Italy (71 percent agreement), even though conventional wisdom would suggest that labor market policy reforms are particularly contested in these countries.7For example, when both the Renzi and Macron governments in Italy and France, respectively, passed liberalizing labor market reforms in the past years, they were immediately confronted with widespread protest and mass mobilization by unions.
Supporting coalitions of different welfare state models
A more detailed analysis of the public opinion data gathered by the INVEDUC project reveals quite different supporting coalitions (i.e., groups of citizens supporting or opposing a particular reform proposal) for the three sets of reform proposals.8Julian L. Garritzmann, Marius R. Busemeyer, and Erik Neimanns, “Public Demand for Social Investment: New Supporting Coalitions for Welfare State Reform in Western Europe?” Journal of European Public Policy 25, no. 6 (2018): 844–861. The starkest differences can be observed between supporters of the transfer-oriented vs. the workfare model of the welfare state. The supporting coalition of the transfer-oriented model is made up of core supporters of the traditional welfare state: citizens of lower income levels and less education as well as individuals who identify with a left-wing economic ideology and subscribe to more traditional and autocratic values. Supporters of the workfare policy proposal, in contrast, are to be found among respondents with higher levels of income and those identifying with an economic right-wing ideology.
The supporting coalition of social investment reform proposals differs from both of these. In terms of values and ideology, backers of the social investment model subscribe to a left-wing economic ideology (similar to supporters of the traditional welfare state model), but they support left-libertarian social values (i.e., values that indicate support for egalitarian gender roles, a cosmopolitan orientation, and ecological sustainability). Furthermore, besides ideology, there are very few other personal characteristics (the exception is “being aged above 60”) that are statistically related to support for the social investment model. This finding can be interpreted as evidence of the broad support enjoyed by the social investment model across different socioeconomic classes.
Are there potential biases in public opinion on social investment?
What is the bottom line of this brief analysis of the dynamics of public opinion on education and social investment policies? I started this essay by asking whether the re-orientation of many (European) welfare states toward the social investment model in recent years reflects a genuine and broad desire for social policy reform among citizens, or whether it should be perceived as a “hidden retrenchment” (given that it primarily benefits those in the middle and upper socioeconomic classes, while often cutting back benefits and services that cater to labor market outsiders).“We also find that ideological orientations can better indicate support for reform proposals than socioeconomic background.”
From the perspective of public opinion research, the brief answer to this question is that it may be both. On the one hand, our data on public attitudes toward welfare state reforms show that labor market outsiders (i.e., those with lower incomes and less education) continue to support the transfer-oriented welfare state model. Thus, cutting back unemployment benefits or introducing new conditions for said benefits is not popular with these groups of citizens. Our survey data also show that workfare policies are actually more popular than commonly believed. On the other hand, the public opinion data also reveal that social investment reforms are supported by a large coalition of individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds. We also find that ideological orientations can better indicate support for reform proposals than socioeconomic background.
Thus, policymakers implementing social investment reforms are responding to a broad demand for them; there are no indications that these reforms are only supported by a narrow coalition at the upper end of the income scale. However, the welfare state’s ability to mitigate inequality can be undermined if the expansion of the social investment pillar comes at the expense of the transfer-oriented model’s benefits. In other research with the same dataset we find that welfare state retrenchment continues to be unpopular,9Marius R. Busemeyer and Julian L. Garritzmann, “Public Opinion on Policy and Budgetary Trade-offs in European Welfare States: Evidence from a New Comparative Survey,” Journal of European Public Policy 24, no. 6 (2017): 871–889. even if cutbacks are justified with investments in education. Nevertheless, the public opinion data suggest that policymakers selectively appealing to the upper “two-thirds” of citizens by combining social investment with workfare reforms might command a politically viable support coalition. Therefore, for political parties of the left, the challenge is and continues to be to forge new coalitions (or resuscitate old ones) in the electorate that bring together supporters of the social investment model with those of the transfer-oriented welfare state.