Conditional Solidarity: Social Class, Experiences of the Economic Crisis and Welfare Attitudes in Western Europe

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
CLM.7.03 (Clement House)
Patrick Sachweh, Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany, Frankfurt/Main, Germany
In times of economic crisis, welfare state institutions act as "automatic stabilizers" of citizens' living conditions, mitigating material hardship and socio-economic insecurity. In the current Financial and Economic Crisis in Western Europe, governments intervened into the economy and engaged in active crisis management. Consequently, the political and scholarly debate has expected public opinion to become more supportive of government intervention and the welfare state. Yet, while some attention has been paid to the roots of the crisis and governments’ coping reactions, less is known about the extent to which citizens feel affected by the crisis and how this relates to their welfare attitudes.

Thus, this paper asks how Western Europeans' subjective assessment of the personal impact of the crises is associated with their welfare attitudes and whether this association differs across social groups. Because most studies on the link between economic conditions and welfare attitudes focus on aggregate differences in welfare state support (either over time or across nations), limited attention is paid to the differential impact of crises on social groups. As the consequences of economic downturns are distributed unevenly across society, social groups may differ not only with regard to whether they actually feel affected by economic crises, but also with regard to their welfare attitudes.

Using cross-sectional survey data  for 17 Western European countries (Eurobarometer 2010), I analyze which social groups feel most affected by the crisis and how this is associated with their welfare attitudes. Furthermore, as countries differ in how hard they were hit by the crisis and how effectively their welfare systems were able to cushion its consequences, I also pay attention to the cross-national variation of these perceptions. The findings show that among traditional welfare state supporters, feeling personally affected by the crisis bolsters the support of blue collar workers while women and the unemployed are supportive even if they do not feel personally affected. By contrast, the social policy preferences of traditional welfare state opponents are strongly conditional upon crisis experiences: small employers and the self-employed are supportive only if they feel personally affected, and otherwise still oppose social policy. Cross-nationally, citizens’ in the Mediterranean welfare states are most likely to feel personally affected by the crisis and also show strong welfare state support. Yet, citizens’ in the Liberal nations, who also feel strongly affected by the crisis, show lower overall levels of welfare state support. Thus, even in the present climate of fiscal austerity different welfare cultures are likely to persist in the face of similar pressures on the welfare state.