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Mediterranean nations should reduce the welfare state and re-empower the family

Over the years, the welfare state has come to assume an ever-growing role in providing the needs of its people. Not only is it ill-suited for such a role but, as it expands, it may be contracting the resources available to the one institution best equipped to care for people: the family.

Since the inception of the welfare state, there have been those who sought to enlarge and empower it and those who aimed to change, transform, or eradicate it. The latter often pointed out either its ineffectiveness or offered an ideological and theoretical argument against its very nature. Yet welfare regimes generally have resisted anything other than soft reforms. Deep changes or structural alterations - let alone their eradication - are currently out of the question. The same cannot be said of the impact they have had on other social institutions, such as the family. 

The financial crisis of 2008 brought to light some serious concerns about the viability of the welfare state model that extends across the transatlantic sphere. More importantly, it opened a debate about its raison d’être. The introspection has been more thorough where the crisis was most brutal: the Mediterranean countries of Southern Europe. 

The Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen distinguished between three models of the welfare state: liberal, conservative (also called the continental or Bismarckian model), and social-democratic. The design of each of these reflects a different view of social stratification and the three sources of welfare provision: the family, the market, and the state.   

The nations facing the deepest issues concerning welfare are Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece. However, none of these is a pure form of any of Esping-Andersen’s classifications. Instead, they constitute a mixed structure that has been labeled the "Mediterranean welfare state." The main feature of Mediterranean welfare states is the role played by the family and its interpenetration in every layer of social policy.  

The Mediterranean welfare model desperately needs transformation.

The marked familialism that has traditionally characterized Mediterranean countries was built upon the principle of functional subsidiarity, in which the state plays a peripheral role and the family take primary responsibility to provide for the welfare of its members. That familialism was created by special features in the contours of Mediterranean countries, once shared by other European nations. Of particular relevance are the strong institutionalization of marriage and the intensity of intergenerational connections within families. Another is the internal strength of the Roman Catholic Church in all these countries (except for Eastern Orthodox Greece). Together, these three features contributed historically to the absence of strong state intervention.

However, during the Silver Age of Welfare (1976-2007), governments of every Mediterranean country enormously increased the size of the state. In the process, they drastically reduced the role played by the other two traditional sources of welfare: the market and the family. Mediterranean statism reached a fever pitch in the years before the 2008 crisis, a consistent trend among almost every form of welfare regime. (The liberal model has been traditionally the single exception, even though the state is also advancing within it.) The typical pattern has been for left-of-center political parties to expand the welfare state. Most or all of this expansion is retained under the conservative governments that follow, due to the high approval ratings of such policies and the fear of electoral punishment if they were to be eliminated or reduced. There has also been a shift towards a state-based welfare model aimed, in particular, to tackle the so-called “new social risks” (as Peter Taylor-Gooby called them), especially the increase in female participation in the labor market and the aging of the population, both of which introduce new social structures, cultural norms, and human needs.

The 2008 economic crisis revealed the mismatch between citizens' needs and the state's scarce economic resources. The downturn challenged the programs that had been specifically developed to face the new social risks. These very programs seem to have made the Mediterranean economies unsustainable in the long term.

The most desperate need of our age is for a return of the family to the heart of this, and every, society.  

These criticisms must be parsed carefully, since negative macroeconomic indicators and the sustainability of the welfare state do not necessarily have to be related. However, viewing the data, undeniable patterns emerge. Public social expenditure-to-GDP ratio increased in Spain from 15 percent in 1980 to 24.6 percent in 2016; in Portugal from 9.5 percent to 24.1; in Italy from 17.4 percent to 28.9 percent; and in Greece from 9.9 percent to 27 percent. When those data are contrasted with the increase of the debt-to-GDP ratio, one starts to see a trend. To give two representative examples, this ratio rose in Italy from 71.7 percent in 1991 to 132.5 percent in 2016; and from 40.9 percent in Spain in 2004 to 99.6 percent in 2015. Of course, there are also endemic ills and specific policy decisions, such as misguided budgeting and spending in Greece or the real estate bubble in Spain, that contributed to the financial disaster in Southern Europe.

Nevertheless, one way or another, the welfare model of Southern European countries seems to have a limited future. Its expiration date is carried on a tide of rising public debt and falling demographic trends. Changes in the political and socioeconomic sphere stem from an altered set of values that characterized Mediterranean countries for centuries. These, together with phenomena such as globalization and deindustrialization, have posed a serious threat not only on the welfare systems of Southern Europe, but to Southern Europeans themselves.

Family – with marriage (its cornerstone) and children (its fruits) – is the single institution that has experienced the deepest changes and the greatest damage at the hands of welfare state policies. Cultural trends have furthered this self-evident problem. Divorce rates are skyrocketing as rapidly as marriage rates are dropping. Furthermore, the lowest birth rates in history simply are not enough to support a welfare model based on wealth transfers from a dwindling number of young taxpayers to the expanding ranks of the elderly. Nonetheless, policymakers have persisted for decades in implementing a welfare model further and further removed from the history and family-based dynamics of Mediterranean people and cultures. The subsequent deterioration, or plain destruction, of the institution of the family – by replacing its historic role as a pillar of social support – has been the mournful, (presumably) unintended consequence.

This is doubly regretful – and paradoxical – since, of the three institutions that historically provide welfare, it is the family that best weathered the financial and economic crisis of 2008. The very same institution that the state-based welfare system was trying to supersede was the one to which most people appealed to survive. When the economy became fragile, people may have had moments of doubt about the competence of government welfare programs, but none doubted the love and care they would receive, together with their physical needs, from their family members.

And that single fact exposes something that no policymaker emphasizes strongly enough: When welfare states begin to displace families as the primary caregiver, the results will be uniformly negative. Our most valued treasure, the family, will be damaged, and with it the culture it created and upholds.

The last crisis proved that, when Mediterranean governments failed to deliver their promised welfare benefits, people organically turned to the market and to family. This should underscore the strength of these two sources of welfare – the two that the government has attempted to supersede. 

The Mediterranean welfare model desperately needs transformation. The gerontocratic societies of Southern Europe will not allow the current model to survive another generation. By the time the demographic crisis hits, the family – by then weakened yet more – will not have the same resources at its disposal. It will then be hard-pressed to rescue the welfare state, as it did the last time. Encouraging strong families could assure that fewer pathologies would develop among “at-risk” youth, well-raised children would thrive, productivity would increase, and less welfare of any kind would be necessary. The most desperate need of our age is for a return of the family to the heart of this, and every, society.  

(Photo credit: MsSaraKelly. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)

Juan A. Soto is the founder and executive director of Fundación Arete. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Laws and a bachelor’s degree in Management from the University of Navarra. He did two exchange programs at HEC Montréal in 2013 and the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne in 2015 in order to earn an international degree. Currently, he is studying for an M.A. in Legal and Political Theory at University College London.

He worked as Research Assistant at the Navarra Center for International Development, where he conducted research mainly about sub-Saharan countries, with a special focus on South Africa. He is passionate about international relations, political science, and political philosophy.