How and why are the Swedish and American welfare states so different?

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How and why are the Swedish and American welfare states so different?

The notion that there are dichotomous welfare states existing in Europe and America is a predominant one, with researchers from both parties concluding that America does not actually have anything that resembles an archetypical welfare state (Skocpol, 1992; Wickham, 2002), the diametric opposite of Sweden, which is portrayed by having the most comprehensive welfare state in the world (Greve, 1983). This essay will examine the difference between the two up until the 21st century, beginning with an overview of how they fit into the models of Titmuss and Esping-Andersen, before considering the welfare and contextual history of each.

          To begin assessing how the Swedish and American welfare states differ it is useful to consider how they have been deemed to fit into established models, namely those of Titmuss and Esping- Andersen. Titmuss (1958) believed welfare regimes could be classified as either residual or institutional, with the first referring to a state that believes the market and family should provide welfare and consequently provides the bare minimum itself, and the second a state that ensures welfare provision is an integral policy issue and that it is available equally to all. For the most part it is believed that America’s welfare state is residual and Sweden’s institutional, suggesting that one aspect in which the two differ is how politically acceptable interventionism is.

          Esping-Andersen’s (1990) typology is based on the idea of commodification, defined as the extent to which individuals are reliant on the market for welfare, and includes three regimes; the two relevant examples being the liberal and the social democratic. In the former provision is restricted to conditional, modest assistance for the needy and the capacity for social reform is limited through adherence to work ethics. Additionally the regime minimizes decommodification, encouraging a strong market-oriented welfare system. The latter regime is based on ideas of universalism as an underlying principle guiding social reform, and assistance that extends to middle-class groups. Social democrats pursue a welfare state that would endorse welfare of the highest standards and not of minimal needs, promoting equality and minimizing commodification to the highest possible extent. Esping-Andersen classified America as a liberal regime and Sweden as social democratic, extending the identifiable differences between the two beyond interventionism attitudes to include market reliance, the universal nature of benefits, standard of welfare and importance of equality.

          Whilst these categorical models highlight ideological disparities that show superficially how the states differ they cannot extrapolate on why this is. An alternative method that may provide more enlightening is that of Therborn (1983), who suggests analysing the historical transformation of state activities to determine how much of their productivity is focused on the welfare needs of households. To this end it is necessary to detail the welfare and contextual history of both Sweden and America.

          The earliest notion of a Swedish welfare state can be traced to the industrialisation that expanded the labour market at the time of the 20th century, with a form of social insurance introduced as a consequence, although any subsequent reform this may have initiated was curtailed following the commencement of the First World War (Salonen, 2009). It was the election of the Social Democratic Party in 1932 that reinstated such ideals, and the combination of their all-encompassing commitment to equality and the lengthy nature of their term in office (44 years) that allowed for the creation of the bulk of the welfare state that still exists (Ginsburg, 1993). Education, employment, social security and housing were addressed in the initial reform era, with a two-part approach combining financial allowances with a comprehensive selection of public services designed to eradicate class based inequalities (Gould, 1993). The government alone did not achieve development however; it can be viewed as a consequence of their cooperation with the trade unions and employers. An accord was reached in 1938 between the Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and the Swedish Employers Federation to promote order in the employment market and reduce the risk of conflict and striking, and this willingness to collaborate is believed to be a crucial part of the success of the welfare system (Gould, 1988).

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          The next distinguishable collection of modifications took place between the 1950s and 1970s, with the majority of new initiatives focusing on the labour market as the primary method for increasing equality. The shift some years earlier from previously held Marxist deflationary economic policies to Keynesian counter-cyclical policies became significant at this point, as the latter emphasised full employment achieved through government investment (Ginsburg, 2001). The introduction of active labour policies took the form of occupation flexibility, increased emphasis on education and mobility support. The shift of the labour force from the countryside to cities was ...

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