Anthony Kevins and Kees van Kersbergen
The generous, “universal” welfare states of Scandinavia offer a range of perks that foreigners often have a hard time even imagining. In exchange for paying higher taxes, citizens across the income spectrum gain access to a wide array of social programmes and transfers. There’s a lot to praise. But does the generosity and broad accessibility of these welfare states reinforce the dividing line between, for example, native Danes and newcomers to Denmark?
In our recent Policy & Politics article, we set out to answer this question through a comparison of the Danish and Canadian welfare states. Though different in many ways, these two countries share a long history of using social policy to create a sense of allegiance to the national community. Both Denmark and Canada have done so by appealing to “universalism”, tying welfare state access to citizenship or residency (rather than, for example, to an individual’s income level). Yet Canada is, by international standards, far from a big spender on its welfare state – whether compared to Denmark, the OECD average, or even other modest, “liberal” welfare states like the US and the UK.
We argue that variation in available “community perks” is crucial for understanding how universalist social policy affects solidarity and the integration of immigrants into the national community.
In Denmark, the generous set of universalist perks reinforces – somewhat counterintuitively – the division between those who are in and outside of the national community. Given that newcomers gain access to extensive community perks, the potential cost of letting immigrants in is seen to be higher. In the eyes of the native population, it therefore becomes all the more important to monitor immigrant behaviour – to make sure that newcomers behave like “true Danes” – in order to keep the generous welfare state afloat.
In Canada, by contrast, the comparative stinginess of the welfare state helps to soften the dividing line between the native-born population and newcomers to the country. The “universalism” of the minimalist Canadian welfare state is thus one that reinforces a more inclusive Canadian identity: immigrants are relatively easily incorporated into the national community, but the perks that go along with community membership are comparatively limited.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should set out to cut back the welfare state today so that we can all be more welcoming to immigrants tomorrow. As our comparison of Canada and Denmark also highlights, a generous welfare state is a far more effective vehicle for achieving other worthy goals, such as reducing poverty – including, crucially, for immigrants themselves.
Rather, our study highlights the need to address certain tensions generated by generous universalist welfare states before it’s too late: without careful policy attention, the broad, solidarity-building capacity of generous community perks may fizzle out, instead reinforcing the dividing line between the deserving “us” and the unworthy “them”.
This blog post was originally published on the Discover Society – Policy and Politics blog on 6 February 2019.
You may read the original research in Policy & Politics:
About the Authors
Anthony Kevins is a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Utrecht University School of Governance. His research centres around the relationship between public opinion and social policy reform, and his work has been published in journals such as Socio-Economic Review and the Journal of European Social Policy. You can read more about his research on his website, which also includes non-paywalled, open-access copies of all of his published articles.
Kees van Kersbergen is Professor of Comparative Politics at Aarhus University. His research interests lie in comparative politics, comparative political economy and comparative political sociology. He has published widely in the area of welfare state studies in refereed journals and with major university presses. His latest book is The Politics of Inequality (Palgrave; co-authored with Carsten Jensen).
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