How the Welfare State Transformed European Life

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  • 0:03 What is a Welfare State?
  • 1:42 Development of Welfare States
  • 4:35 Welfare State After WWII
  • 7:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the modern welfare state. We will look at the history of European welfare states and highlight their key components.

What Is a Welfare State?

So, let's discuss the welfare state and its development within modern European history. What exactly is a welfare state? A welfare state is a nation-state whose government is committed to ensuring economic and social well-being through redistribution of wealth and other government-sponsored programs. While the precise components of a welfare state vary, most modern welfare states tend to contain elements of democracy and socialism.

Welfare states typically value universal human rights and economic equality. To achieve this, high taxes are often levied, usually in the form of a progressive tax. A progressive tax is a tax in which those with larger income are taxed to a greater degree.

Universal nationalized healthcare is a common component of the modern welfare state. Access to education and employment opportunities are also emphasized. The concept behind a welfare state is that all individuals are entitled to economic and social well-being, and the government ought to take an active role in orchestrating this. In a welfare state, the government, to varying degrees, 'levels the playing field' for its citizens. Privatization is typically kept to a minimum, especially in the areas of healthcare, education, and industry.

Welfare states are common throughout Europe. The Scandinavian counties of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and others are often cited as stereotypical welfare states.

The Development of Welfare States in Europe|

Welfare states as we know them emerged throughout Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although conservative in many respects, the German Empire was an early leading welfare state. This may seem surprising to those of us in 2014, who associate welfare states with liberalism, but throughout the late 19th century, many European governments adopted elements of a welfare state in order to forestall communism. Otto von Bismarck's German Empire, or the 'First Reich,' which lasted between 1871-1918, was in many respects, remarkably progressive, having elements of old-age pension plans, various insurances, healthcare programs, and other welfare features.

In Great Britain, elements of a welfare state were introduced in the early 20th century. Under liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, reforms were put into place between 1906 and 1914, including old-age pension plans, free school meals, and other programs. Of particular importance was the Development Act of 1909, which allowed for greater government involvement in economics, and the National Insurance Act of 1911, which allowed for healthcare and unemployment benefits. As Chancellor of the Exchequer (or basically finance minister) David Lloyd George also played a key role in transforming Great Britain into a welfare state.

Germany and Great Britain were not alone in their transformation into welfare states. Throughout the early 20th century, a number of European states experimented with elements of welfare programs. In France, the Popular Front movement of the 1930s resulted in domestic reforms along socialist lines. The Second Spanish Republic also made progressive reforms during this time, as did many Eastern European states.

Interestingly, the United States has historically been reluctant to adopt elements of the welfare state. Many Americans equate the welfare state with communism or socialism. The United States, while not nearly as much of a welfare state as the countries in Europe, should probably be considered a partial welfare state. During the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt was successful in implementing elements of the welfare state, most notably Social Security. President Lyndon B. Johnson also played a role in promoting welfare state programs, as did President Barack Obama, with his Affordable Care Act, commonly known as 'ObamaCare.'

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