Esping-Anderson's Welfare-State Typology, Social Stratification, and Unintended Consequences

Debates on the welfare state have centered on the degrees to which certain policy measures ensue reductions in poverty and inequality. Contrary to popular belief, however, welfare state institutions have empirically shown to be less than ideal. Using Esping-Anderson’s Welfare-Type Typology, we examine the degree to which welfare states have shaped social stratification, with special attention to the role of gender as a social location affecting social welfare outcomes. We also assess what other social forces are crucial, particularly regarding the nature of gender relations.

The ‘liberal’ welfare-state is constituted by a high degree of ‘commodification,' in which basic access to material necessities are determined by the extent to which an individual participates in the labor market and is rewarded by labor-market outcomes.  The ideology is that a high degree of state interference in the market economy, such that various human needs, like access to health care, are socialized, not only causes price distortions that lead to economic downturns, but undermines the effectiveness of the economy to achieve allocational equity and efficiency. The favored means of providing state-supported services to the body-politic are by way of means-tested entitlements.

The empirical evidence suggests that irrespective of policy intention, classicism is induced.  Social stratification is marked by the manifestation of a desperate minority forced to rely on minimal forms of public assistance, which inadvertently undermines their bargaining power in the labor market, making inequality, and thus poverty, a self-fulfilling prophesy (Korpi & Palme, 1998; Orloff 1993). This is specifically exemplified by countries like the United States, a liberal welfare-state, which offers meager assistance for women to escape the confines of patriarchy within the household (Stier & Lewin-Epstien, 2001). The net effect is a ‘two-tier’ welfare system, in which social assistance programs serve a predominantly female clientele (Orloff, 1993, 1998).

The social-democratic ‘encompassing’ welfare-regime is marked by universal social insurance schemes to the economically active population. The philosophical underpinning is that rights of citizenship preclude basic access to state provided assistance programs, to ensure a modicum of security and protection from the uncertainty and insecurity that stem from the vagaries of the capitalist marketplace. According to empirical evidence social democracies, like that of Sweden, ensure poverty traps are greatly eviscerated (Korpi & Palme, 1998).

It is prudent, however, not to let the optimism cloud one’s judgement. Social democracies, like that of Sweden, despite curbing poverty, in other matters enhance social stratification. Given the likelihood of women to not be continuously employed over the course of the life cycle, due to the effects of motherhood and the discriminatory effects of patriarchy within the household, this has implications for the types of jobs women are likely of receiving (Orloff, 1993, Rubin & Lewin-Epstein, 2001).  In Sweden, for example, women are relegated to employments in the public-sector, by which they receive less earnings and have less organized forms of collective bargaining with the state than men in the private sector; “this has the gendered the debate over public versus private provision of welfare services” (Orloff, 1993).

The corporatist model of the welfare state is centered on the tenet that the state should maintain a high level of occupational segmentation and socioeconomic differentiation. The eligibility for welfare-services is dependent on the specific category of employment in the private sector. To some degree, poverty is alleviated to those who have the opportunity to be employed in an industry deemed 'worthy' of social protection. The outcome, however, is a reproduction of social inequality along socioeconomic distinctions among different categories of citizens (Korpi & Palme, 1998).

Furthermore, the under the corporatist model the state supports a traditional division of labor between the genders, both normatively and institutionally. The state expects a reproduction of the so-called ‘traditional’ family, with the male breadwinner the sole provider for all family members. The state may intervene when the family succumbs to economic precariousness, but the overwhelming perceivance is that women should be relegated to the responsibilities of house-holding, fostering social outcomes that make women dependents on the family, and thus on males, for sustenance (Rubin & Lewin-Epstein, 2001).

Concerning social forces, other than the welfare-state itself, that shape social stratification, it is pertinent to take note of the empirical evidence that women, especially mothers, suffer reduced earnings when they seek gainful employment (Budig & England, 2001). The implication is that women, especially mothers, will have less bargaining power within household to escape the confines of patriarchy. In this sense, not only is social stratification reproduced in the public sphere, but is also maximized in the private sphere. In the household women become socially dependent on their spouses, which, in turn, induces women who are financially dependent on their spouses to succumb to unequal domestic responsibilities.

By way of conclusion, it is necessary to emphasize that although the intended effect of welfare-state institutions is inherently egalitarian, the inconsistencies make such optimism a bit suspect. It is important to be contextual, institutionally specific, and historically contingent in making assessments on whether welfare-states achieve desired goals, and it is requisite that one pay close attention to how entrenched cultural characteristics and social perceptions adversely shape the character of social organization.


Esping-Anderson, G. 1999. Social Foundation of Post-industrial Society. Oxford: University Press.

Orloff, A. 1996. "Gender in the Welfare State." Annual Review of Sociology 22:51-78.

Orloff, A. 1993. “Gender and the social rights of citizenship: The comparative analysis of gender relations and welfare states.” American Sociological Review 58: 303-328.

Stier, H., Lewin-Epstein, N. & Braun, M. 2001. “Welfare Regimes, Family-Supportive Policies, and Women's Employment Along the Life-Course.” American Journal of Sociology 106: 1731-1760.


  1. One of the effects of means-testing of social benefits, in the liberal mode of welfare state, is the fragmentation of the population recipient of benefits into different and opposed groups, often competing for whatever social benefits are still provided.

    Whether this is an intended effect or an "unintended consequence" is debatable, but whatever the answer, politically to keep the population in constant mutual conflict it's gold for the maintenance of the system.

    Currently in Australia, the tendency is to delegitimize the older population's claims for social support:

    The coming inter-generational war (March 4, 2013)

  2. As a follow up to the previous comment:

    Who takes the harshest anti-welfare line? Those on state benefits
    "I talked to families directly affected by the cuts and many wanted benefits themselves – yet resented anyone else getting them".


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