01 June 2015

Changing welfare states in the post-crisis period

The OECD has published its latest social expenditure update covering 2014. It’s a very interesting small report well worth reading. Here are 8 points that caught my eye in the latest data which I organise in three themes: surprising changes in ranking, the articulation of short term and long term dynamics and the importance of paying attention to the allocation and composition of social spending, not just the aggregate spending. 

Surprising changes in ranking (Figure 1)

1. Scandinavian countries are no longer always the top social spenders. In 2014, France (1st) spent more than Finland (2nd), Belgium (3rd) more than Denmark (4th), Italy (5th) and Austria (6th) more than Sweden (7th). For a very long time, Scandinavia had much large welfare states than other countries, which was attributed to particularly strong left wing parties and unions, as well as production models that required such a welfare state. This seems to be changing (though see point 5 below). 

2. Spain (8th) and Italy (5th) now spend more on social expenditures than Germany (8th), while Portugal (9th) spends more than the Netherlands (10th). But they do so in a way which is particularly inegalitarian (see point 6 below) and inefficient (consistent with older research by, among others, Andre Sapir). 

Diversity in short term changes, but in the long run social spending increases 

3. The biggest absolute increase in social spending since 2007 can be seen in Finland, Spain, Belgium, Japan and Ireland. Nine countries have managed to reduce spending below their post-2007 peak: Sweden, Greece, Hungary, UK, Ireland, Canada, Iceland, Estonia and Chile (Figure 1). 

4. Every decade since the 1960s has seen an increase in the OECD’s average public social expenditures. This average hides an important difference between the US and the EU which start diverging in the mid-1970s. By 2012, the OECD average spending has stabilised around 22%, EU21 around 25%, US under 20%, while Japan spends more than the OECD average for the first time (Figure 2). 

It’s not what you spend, it’s how you spend it 

5. But Scandinavia does continue to spend much more on all social services (excluding health), whereas pension commitments are much larger in continental European countries than Scandinavia (Figure 4). And indeed the challenge for most welfare states is going to be to foster efficiency and equality in a context where health and pensions are absorbing an ever rising amount of resources. 

6. What characterises southern Europe is not high social spending, it’s a high percentage of spending targeted at the better off (highest income quintile) and very little targeted at the poor (the bottom quintile). Scandinavia and liberal countries do well in terms of targeting spending toward bottom quintile (Figure 5). 

 7. Liberal countries (Australia, Canada, US, UK, New Zealand) are the biggest ‘means testers’: They have among the highest share of cash benefits with eligibility and entitlements requirements that are conditional on the recipient's current income and assets (Figure 6). While it means they do not fare badly in terms of targeting spending to the bottom quintile (point 6), reducing universality of benefits undermines public support for generous benefits, hence the low social spending figures. Countries must strike a balance between allocating sufficient amounts to the bottom quintile to promote effectiveness of spending in reducing poverty and inequality, and distributing parts of spending to other income quintiles to ensure legitimacy.

 8. We should not confuse what countries spend overall and the public-private distribution of that social spending. So far I’ve only discussed gross public spending: when looking at net social spending (i.e. including private social spending and effect of tax), the US comes out second (from 23rd) after France! UK jumps from 15th to 5th, Japan from 14th to 7th and Netherlands from 13th to 6th. Others fall in ranking: Sweden from 7th to 11th, Italy from 6th to 8th, and Spain from 8th to 10th position (2011 figures, Figure 7). The combined drive by governments such as the UK to reduce public social spending and privatise parts of the provision may mean they end up in the worst of both worlds: spending as much as before, but with a higher share going through an often less efficient (for the case of health care) and less egalitarian provider.