What are the arguments for and against the state taking on responsibility for social welfare?
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What are the arguments for and against the state taking on responsibility for social welfare? The different arguments for and against the state taking on responsibility for social welfare have been powerfully put across by people of opposing political persuasions in Britain over the last 60 years. In this essay, therefore, I intend to use Britain's welfare state to exemplify arguments for and against the state taking primary responsibility for social welfare. The welfare state in Britain was introduced in 1945 by the newly elected Labour government. Although this was the first comprehensive attempt at creating a functional welfare state it is important to note that it was not an entirely new policy. In fact, we can trace back to 1601 to find an early attempt at implementing a state welfare provision - the Poor Law. The theory behind this legislation was that the poor were to be categorized into the deserving ("the impotent poor") and the undeserving ("the persistent idlers"). There were many obvious flaws in the methodology and logic in the implementation of the Poor Law but it must be recognised that this was an early attempt at providing a social welfare system. This demonstrates that for hundreds of years a case has been made for some measure of state social welfare provision. It is also vital not to underestimate the impact the studies carried out by social researchers such as Rowntree (1901) and Booth (1902)
Probably the most notable change in policy brought in by the New Right was the end of the commitment to full employment that previous governments had encouraged. The New Right believed in a "natural level of employment". They felt that this "natural level of employment" was being undermined by wages being too high due to the actions of trade unions. Therefore, they argued that the market would solve unemployment by creating downward pressure on wages. Because of this, the differential between wages and benefits was increased by creating downward pressure on benefit levels and therefore welfare expenditure. However, despite this right wing shift in political thinking, there was no major change in welfare expenditure until the late 1980's. The year 1988 was an important one in terms of implications for the welfare state as it represented a far more radical application of New Right thinking towards the welfare state. Firstly, the New Right introduced a shift from the previous system of universal provision towards a system based more upon selective provision. For example, some of the benefits that were previously available to everyone (universal) became only available to some via a "means test" (selective). This was a big move that completely contradicted the universal method employed by previous more left wing governments. Another change made by the New Right was the introduction of privatization and marketization. An example of this is the case of the sale of council houses.
It is also suggested that due to financial restrictions the voluntary sector will never be anything more than a secondary level service that relies on the state or private sector provision. Social security benefits are the most redistributive aspect of the welfare state as they distribute income to the poorest people in the country. A point in favour of a social welfare system, from a socialist or social democratic perspective, is that the social security benefits can be used to redistribute wealth to make society economically fairer by heavily taxing the rich and giving it to the poorest people in society. On the other hand, opponents see this as a Robin Hood aspect of state social welfare which demotivates both the richest and the poorest people in the country - encouraging idleness (one of the "five giants" beveridge was trying to eradicate) amongst the poor and encouraging the rich to leave the country. The New Right when in power, therefore, cut back on the redistributive aspects of welfare provision. The one-off grant system that was previously in effect was replaced in the 1986 and 1988 security acts and 16 to 18 year olds entitlement to income support was revoked. In current political debates the Conservative party, now in opposition frequently accuse the Labour party of redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor via "underhand" or "stealthy" methods. This is an indication that the argument about the extent to which the state should take responsibility for social welfare remains highly contested. Where you stand on this issue is fundamental to your political beliefs and how you will vote.
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