Summary and Info
For a long time the Nordic welfare model has epitomised a possible `middle way' between predominantly state and market ideologies, a balance between economic growth and social justice. However, the economic crises, in Denmark in the 1980s and more recently in Sweden and Finland, have raised questions about the sustainability of this type of welfare state. The desirability of a generous welfare system has even been debated within the Nordic countries themselves. Elsewhere the recent economic crises in Sweden and Finland have been interpreted as signs of the imminent collapse of the Nordic model; and market-based solutions and policies have become increasingly prominent. The fate of Nordic social policy is therefore of importance not only to Nordic countries, but also to social policy more widely. This book, filled with rich empirical analysis, is a timely contribution to the debate. Nordic Social Policy looks in depth at the changing preconditions for social policy, the changes in social policies and the development in the welfare of the people. In other words, the focus is on what has actually happened in social policies and the impact on the welfare of individuals and families. Taken as a whole, the various analyses in the book provide a good basis for deciding whether the Nordic welfare states have given up their `middle way`. The book is a result of the collective and coordinated work of more than 20 Nordic social researchers over many years. It is organized into three parts. The first reviews the changing preconditions for the welfare state, the second consists of analyses of the social policies themselves, and the third examines welfare outcomes. The changing preconditions include citizens' support for the welfare state, changing demographic and family structures and the political and economic development. The empirical analysis studies policies such as labour market activation and social security in cash and kind, as well as welfare outcomes such as income inequality, poverty, marginalization, and social exclusion.The results of the analyses are striking, although at times underplayed by the authors. Broadly speaking, the insights can be summarised in three points. First main conclusion: 'yes, preconditions and political rhetoric have indeed changed'. Second: 'but no social policies have changed fundamentally, although some have been trimmed and others expanded'. Third, and most importantly: 'there are no signs that economic downturns have gone hand in hand with increasing inequalities'. Relatively stable and successful welfare policies are thus the hallmark of Nordic social policy in the 1990s. "Business as Usual in an Unusual World" would therefore be a more appropriate subtitle for Nordic Social Policy than the somewhat misleading "Changing Welfare States".This is not to say that important changes have not occurred. Indeed the authors note that the policies have changed towards a greater emphasis on activation in social security, and some benefits in both cash and kind have been cut and others improved. This, however, may be seen as trimming and adapting, rather than a wholesale departure from the principles of universal, generous benefits, and a large role remains for the state vis-á-vis other actors. Another change is that young people in Finland, Sweden and Norway are encountering increasing financial difficulties relative to other age groups - particularly older people who can no longer be regarded as among the most economically vulnerable groups in the Nordic countries. The book is a rare contribution to comparative social policy in bringing together researchers from different countries and asking them collaborate under a common research framework and with original data. The authors effectively destroy the myths from both the left and right about the crisis of the welfare state and the worsening social problems.However, it would have been instructive to explore how social policies work to prevent social problems from occurring in adverse economic circumstances. Indeed the book as a whole shows that the Nordic welfare state prevented widespread poverty resulting from the sudden and very deep recessions in Sweden and Finland, and also suggests that their comprehensive welfare systems have contributed to their fast recovery. Although the study points to the inadequacy of statements on the fate of the welfare state and welfare outcomes based on aggregate measures, it fails to identify the mechanisms at play. For example, relatively unchanged income distributions do not mean that nothing of importance has changed. As an illustration, imagine that the whole population or major segments of it become worse off, as was more or less the case in Finland in the early 1990s. Such a situation does not show up dramatically in statistics on income inequality. However, the economic position of benefit recipients has generally deteriorated relative to people with earned income in the 1990s, not only in Finland, but also in Sweden and Denmark. Hence, detailed studies of tax/benefits systems may help to reveal the impact on the wellbeing of people and - from a more economic perspective - on questions of work incentives. Another way forward might be to contrast the Finnish and Swedish experience with that of other countries with economic difficulties, but with different types of welfare state, if any. In general, it would be interesting to put the whole study into perspective and compare the developments in non-Nordic countries, and so identify alternative routes to, and outcomes of, welfare. However, the editors note that it is an on-going research project which plans to include more countries in its next phase. With at least Britain and Germany among them, this would facilitate comparisons with two other archetypical welfare states in similar settings.Overall, this book is an excellent collection of analyses which bring much new material and together provide a unique foundation for assessing the state of social policy and welfare in the Nordic countries. The book deserves to be read by everyone interested in social policy in a comparative perspective.