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  • Gender and Welfare in Modern Europe
  • Jane Lewis

Modern states have always constructed social provision around the twin poles of paid work and welfare, a system that largely distinguished it from needs-based and arguably universal, but punitively deterrent poor-law systems. Governments have always been concerned about the conditions for providing welfare—policy analysts use the language of entitlements while governments are really concerned with conditions of receipt of cash or services. There has been a longstanding firm conviction too that wages are the best form of welfare. In the United Kingdom almost a hundred years ago the Labour Party fought for a legislative proposal called the Right to Work Bill more fiercely than it did for pensions, while it was not at all keen on the new idea of social insurance because trades unions feared state intrusion into the territory of mutuality. What was at stake of course was the fight for the old-style labour contract, securing regular, full-time work for men, to which social insurance was successfully joined in a range of Western countries between the 1890s and the 1930s, and which is now under profound review.1

At the heart of the modern welfare state was the settlement between capital and labour. Feminist critique2 and recent comparative work on social provision has shown how equally important is the settlement between men and women and the changing nature of family and gender relations.3 Welfare [End Page 39] states have deployed models of individual 'survival' based on relatively firm assumptions about family organization and gender relations. Every welfare system has made assumptions about what 'the family' looks like and how earning and caring are organized. But both the assumptions and the social reality are now in the process of transformation.

The old labour contract was designed first and foremost for the regularly employed male breadwinner, with provision made alongside it for women. The gender settlement meant that those marginal to the labour market got cash cover through dependants' benefits. Alain Supiot has described the labour/capital settlement in terms of security traded for dependence. A similar set of arrangements can be said to have marked the gender settlement. The male-breadwinner family model was based on a set of assumptions about male and female contributions at the household level, with men primarily earning and women caring for the young and old. The male-breadwinner model built into the post-war settlement assumed regular and full male employment and stable families, in which women would be provided for largely through their husbands' earnings and their husbands' social contributions.

However, a pure male-breadwinner model never existed in reality, since women always engaged in the labour market. Following the Second World War in many Western countries, people of the middling sort in the United Kingdom (as in United States in the late nineteenth century), together with large tracts of the middle and respectable working classes, lived lives which to a large extent reflected this model. In the second half of the twentieth century increased numbers of women entered the labour market. Indeed, this has become one point of convergence between EU member states. Family change, which has resulted in family breakdown, more fluidity in intimate relationships, and a large increase in single-person households, has also contributed to the erosion of the male-breadwinner model at the behavioural level. As a result, strong arguments have been made that change in family and labour markets may be characterized in terms of increasing 'individualization,'4 with the erosion of traditional family bonds (manifested in the last quarter of the twentieth century in low fertility, higher rates of divorce, extramarital births, lone parenthood, and increasing numbers of single-person households) and more economic independence among women. In part the existence of 'welfare states' and social provision has permitted more risk-taking in individual relationships, for example in the case of women with dependent children leaving unsatisfactory marriages. However, welfare-state restructuring in the last decade or so seems in large measure to have been premised upon the idea of [End Page 40] increasing individual autonomy, and much greater emphasis has been placed on the responsibility of all adults, both...


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pp. 39-54
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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