Political Inequality and the Welfare State

How the Welfare State fosters political Inequality

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

19 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents


1. Introduction & Research Question

2. Literature Review & the State of the Art

3. Theory

4. Hypotheses

5. Research Design
5.1 Data & Methods
5.2 Operationalization

6. Conclusion & Discussion

7. References


In this research paper the relationship between social and political inequality, caused by the welfare state, is explored in detail. On the whole, it deals with the impact of the welfare state on the growing political inequality, which is assumed to result out of a produced increasing social inequality. The theory contains four basic arguments, which partly already exist and are transferred from the dimension of social equality to the political equality dimension. These theoretical assumptions rely on the counterproductive effects of social policies, different welfare regime types, unequal resource distribution and low internal efficacy. The hypotheses, dealing with one theoretical argument each, could be tested through a combination of the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) database and further additional empirical extensions. This research paper fills the gap within the existing literature explaining how the welfare state can foster political inequality.

1. Introduction & Research Question

“Achieving greater socio-economic equality has long been an important goal of modern welfare states, and the redistribution of income from rich to poor has been one of the most important strategies in realizing this goal” (Sachweh & Olafsdottir 2012).

During the last decades we witnessed the challenge of the growing gap within societies between the social layer of the rich and poor. This phenomenon is described as the wealthy people becoming richer and the poor people becoming poorer. At this point in time, the necessity of the existence of a welfare state still appears to be evident. Even nowadays in the 21th century of post-industrial societies the welfare state builds the central state institution to guarantee substantial equality and to reduce poverty in general. But even though welfare programs to downsize this social cleavage have been applied, no shrinking improvements have been established, yet. Unfortunately, the social gap even widened during the course of the years, which contributed to a growing number of socially disadvantaged people. The amount of the poor has remained static or even worsened. As a consequence, the amount of the politically disadvantaged people extended as well. Concisely, Dalton describes this phenomenon by stating “the politically rich are getting richer and the politically needy have less voice” (Dalton 2017). He depicts new evolved participation forms, which assign greater demands on citizens, to be the reason for the raising relevance and impact of social status and resources. This so- called widening participation gap is where the focus is set on this research paper: the increasing level of political inequality due to a growing social inequality generated by the welfare state.

Out of that, the formulation of my research question is the following: “To what extent is political inequality fostered by the welfare state?” On grounds of the latest counter productivity of the welfare state with drastic effects on the structure of social society, this research question gains its high current socio-political relevance.

The structure of my term paper includes an extensive review of the most important pieces of existing literature of the scientific topic of the welfare state connected with social and political inequality. Through a critical reflection of the literature I will construct my theory and generate a model, which visualizes the main theoretical implications. After that I will formulate testable hypotheses out of the theory and state expectations for possible results. For the empirical design I unify my own creation of operationalization with the existing dataset of the International Social Survey Program (ISSP). I will end my term paper with a controversial discussion and a summarizing conclusion.

2. Literature Review & the State of the Art

The relation of the welfare state and social equality is a topic which is commonly researched on. Many scientific approaches to it have been established. Nevertheless, the subtopic of the relationship between the welfare state and political equality has not been touched much, yet. Clearly, there can be found a gap among the existing literature theming the impact of welfare state programs on the degree of political equality within different groups of a society. It is exactly this gap, which I want to fill with this research paper. Clarifying the state of the art, I will review the most important existing literature on the fields of counter productivity, resource distribution, internal efficacy, the role of the welfare state and different kinds of welfare regimes.

Starting with the probably most important piece of literature for my purposes for the term paper which is by Korpi and Palme (1998). They find evidence for a highly critical theory, the “paradox of redistribution”. It assumes that the more benefits are targeted at the poor and the more concerned the welfare state is with creating equality via equal public transfers to all, the less likely it is to reduce poverty and inequality. The authors call the wide-spread assumption, that social policies directed at the needy constitute the most efficient strategy for reducing poverty and social inequality, into question (Korpi & Palme, 1998). In addition, it also has a rejecting approach to universalism, when it criticizes “equal public transfers to all”.

This paradox of redistribution will provide one of the fundamental bases of my theory. I will transfer it from the social dimension to the dimension of political equality, implying the assumption that the more the welfare state tries to reduce social inequality and thus political inequality, the less it will achieve that. Thus, welfare programs work counterproductive and increase political inequality unintentionally. This is exactly where I see the state of the latest developments in societies. The structural gap between the rich and poor continues to extend, although the welfare state tries with several different programs to diminish it.

Gil (1976) explains this counter productivity with an inconsistent behaviour of the welfare state. According to him “every specific social policy influences a certain segment of the general domain and thus contributes to the aggregate effect. While all social policies are thus viewed as components of one system with reference to their underlying common domain, they are not necessarily assumed to be consistent with each other. Rather, considerable inconsistency tends to prevail among these policies because of their origin in conflicts of interests among a society’s sub-segments” (Gil 1976). Due to his approach, welfare social policies suffer from inconsistency and therefore end in counter productivity. His argumentation also includes the perspective that “a society may assign equal or unequal importance of the needs of all its members and segments” (Gil 1976). It may design divisions of labour and distributes goods, services and political rights in equal or unequal terms, which also already hints at the fact, that different welfare types create different extents to which equality is aimed.

For my term paper, I agree with Gil’s approach of the inconsistency of social programs producing counter productivity. I will use this explanation and include it into the political version of the “paradox of redistribution”.

The author Goodin (1988) has a similar opinion on the welfare state and counter productivity, but this time, it results out of different grounds. He affirms that the failure of the welfare state to reduce inequality lies in the beneficial involvement of the non-poor. He demonstrates that “the more the non-poor benefit, the less redistributive, or hence egalitarian, the impact of the welfare state is” (Goodin 1988). In addition, he maintains a quite sceptical view on the welfare state by saying “if equality is the ideal, then the welfare state is a very imperfect realization of that ideal. Other social arrangements would be vastly more egalitarian in their impacts than the welfare state” (Goodin 1988). He reasons this critical perspective with determining that welfare programs only redistribute a very small portion of the social resources. Thus, it is not concerned with continuing equalization, but only with minimum standards.

For my research paper I will also consider Goodin’s view of the reason for social policies to be inefficient. Moreover, his sceptical approach paves the way for further criticism theming emerging political inequality and substantial criticism on the welfare state as it performs nowadays.

Continuing with the next piece of literature by Berinsky (2002) which main supposition is that the welfare state disadvantages those social groups who are actual supporters of it. Those social groups include the economically disadvantaged and supporters of political equality. This is another paradox, which is caused by the welfare state. Berinsky reasons his statement by saying that these people are more restricted in forming consistent opinions on such social policies than those, who are well endowed with politically relevant resources (Berinsky 2002). Hence, the author blames the welfare state to create resource inequalities among social groups, which has political inequality as a consequence. Such resources like education or income enable citizens to gather information about social politics and to form coherent political opinions on the welfare state and their treatment.

Berinsky’s ideas will definitely play a role in theorizing my main arguments. It also opens a discussion which moves from social inequality closer to political inequality caused by the welfare state. In particular, he explains how the structural gap between rich and poor also leads to a participation gap between advantaged people with and disadvantaged people without resources.

This approach of resource inequalities is similar to Verba’s famous “Civic Voluntarism Model”. He blames three answers why people do not participate in political life: “because they can’t, because they don’t want to, or because nobody asked” (Verba 1995). The two most important answers for my research paper are the first and second one. The first answer blames the shortage of necessary resources people might have. These resources include time, monetary reserves and “civic skills”, i.e. communication and organizational capabilities, which foster political participation. These resources are addressed by Berisnky (2002) as well. The second answer “they don’t want to” refers to their individual political involvement. It sets the focus on the low psychological engagement with politics which is rooted in a lack of interest in political issues. But next to them another element belonging to “civic skills” is of far more crucial importance for the research paper, which is “a sense that activity makes no sense” (Verba 1995). This emphasizes the role of the individual political self-consciousness, which is part of the concept of internal efficacy.

Exactly these parts of Verba’s model can be transferred to the process which I want to analyze: Social inequality produces few ”civic skills” and a low political self-consciousness. This results in the general situation of political inequality of particular groups of people disadvantaged through this social inequality created by the welfare state. His model ideally serves for the purpose of connecting social equality, the welfare state and political equality.

Another similar approach by Busemeyer and Goerres (2014) directly points at the connection between socio-economic status and political participation. Increasing levels of socio-economic inequality caused by the welfare state enlarge income-related differences in individual participation. Thus, the participation of low-income groups is depressed. It is common knowledge in this field of political science that people, who feel alienated from their political system are less likely to participate. Busemeyer and Goerres (2014) use this as a starting point and say that societies, which produce differences in the distribution of wealth, tend to bring on the feeling of alienation among citizens of the lower end of this distribution. Therefore, lower class people are disadvantaged by social policies and become less likely to participate, whereas people with more resources continue to participate. Thus, the welfare state has the power to increase or decrease an individual’s perception of internal efficacy through guaranteeing resources or not.

This approaches and the basic idea behind them will contribute to my theoretical arguments, because they give concrete grounds why this phenomenon occurs and releases the role of the welfare state in political participation. More explicitly, it highlights the importance of internal efficacy and lists concrete causes for an individual’s low perceptions on political influence. It even connects unequal resources distribution with low internal efficacy.

An additional thought is proposed by Weale (1990). He refers to the concept of social solidarity and the goals a welfare state wants to accomplish. According to him, a social solidary welfare state is “prepared to take on the responsibility of insuring its citizens against a range of common misfortunes or contingencies, including sickness, interrupted earnings, and old age” (Weale 1990). Thus, social solidarity applied by the welfare state should supply protection against common insecurities. If the principle of solidarity is accepted by the welfare state, the principle of equality must necessarily be accepted as well (Weale 1990). Weale differentiates between two conceptions of social solidarity. The first conception merely involves that the state insures citizens against a range of common contingencies. This leaves open the risk that the coverage might be of drastic differing value, depending on the social status an individual inherits, which mirrors the Bismarckian scheme. Another possibility, which resembles the Beveridge's insurance, provides a coverage consisting only of a minimal value permitting inequalities in supplementary provision. Weale defines the second conception that “social solidarity involves common provision against a range of contingencies, and the implication is that inequality of provision marks a lack of social solidarity” (Weale 1990). Obviously, there is a transparent linkage between equality and solidarity in Weal’s approach. On the whole, he argues against the common conclusion for equality by saying “if we want everyone to have roughly equal amounts of cake, we must hand out unequal portions”. He hypothesizes that the more solidary and institutional the welfare state is, the more it improves equality. This interpretation of the welfare state and its purposes resembles my understanding of a functioning welfare system. He assigns an egalitarian interpretation to the principle of social solidarity, which always is of some extent part of welfare states.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Political Inequality and the Welfare State
How the Welfare State fosters political Inequality
University of Mannheim
Ausgewählte Themen der Politischen Soziologie I: Public Opinion, Political Participation, and the Welfare State
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
political, inequality, welfare, state
Quote paper
Maren Weiß (Author), 2018, Political Inequality and the Welfare State, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/489707


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