Work in Progress

“Increased solidarity with the working population, at the expense of old age pensions – Panel-data evidence on the effect of the COVID-experience on welfare preferences in Spain, Germany and Sweden” (with Matthias Enggist and Silja Häusermann) abstract

The reform capacity of welfare states to adapt to the needs of post-industrial labour markets has been one of the key questions of the welfare literature for the last two decades. In a context of austerity, recalibrating reforms are notoriously difficult because of the extremely high levels of support for existing policies, in particular old age pensions. Building on prior research which has demonstrated the potential of economic crises to affect voters’ welfare preferences, we investigate how the recent economic shock caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has changed social policy preferences in three West European countries (Germany, Sweden, Spain). Relying on original panel data observing the relative support for social policies before and during the crisis, we show that the support for old age pensions has dropped massively relative to support for other social policies. This drop can be observed in all three countries, among all ideological camps and all age groups. However, the drop is most strongly driven by current and soon-to-be pensioners who in turn increased support for benefits to the working age population. At the expense of old age pensions, the economic shock has especially boosted support for active labour market policies and (in Germany) childcare services. This shift of support from pensions to social investment policies might open up a window of opportunity for recalibrating reforms of the welfare state, thereby overcoming gridlocks in reform efforts that have existed for years.

“The Mass Politics of Social Policy Reform in 21st Century Europe” (with Silja Häusermann, Macarena Ares, and Matthias Enggist) abstract

“The Limits of Solidarity. Changing welfare coalitions in a transforming European party system” (with Silja Häusermann, Macarena Ares, and Matthias Enggist) abstract

The configuration of political party competition has been in upheaval in Europe for several decades now. Much has been written on how the competition between the New Left and the New Right has transformed voter coalition potentials on socio-cultural issues. By contrast, the reconfiguration of mass political competition over the welfare state has received much less attention: most studies assume either convergence or the persistence of a traditional conflict between the Left and the Right. However, this assessment of stable and/or pacified political conflict on welfare issues is erroneous, as it neglects massive differences in the relative importance voters attribute to different social policies, in particular to social investment and social consumption policies. Integrating these differences reveals conflict and changing coalition-structures both at the societal and partisan levels. Using newly collected survey data from 8 West European countries (the welfarepriorities data), we are able to combine attitudes on policy support with policy priority, computing an individual-level indicator of weighted social policy positions. Our findings reveal that the conflict structure regarding social policy actually differs starkly from the traditional left-right conflict. We find a distinctive, uni-dimensional alignment of social classes and political parties, with at the poles green and far right party voters. While the social-liberal voters support social investment as opposed to consumption, the reverse is true for the far right voters. This preference configuration reveals coalition potentials between green and moderate right parties for social investment, and between far left and far right parties for social consumption, with the social democrats “lost” in the middle.

“Public Opinion and Long-Term Investments – Under What Conditions Do Citizens Support Future-oriented Reforms?” (with Julian Garritzmann and Silja Häusermann) abstract

This paper aims at better understanding the conditions under which welfare states (and public policy more generally) can be reformed and long-term investments are possible. Focusing on public opinion, we ask: under what conditions are citizens willing to accept future-oriented reforms? We focus on pensions and education as two crucial cases, as both policies have (1) long-term implications and time inconsistency problems (i.e. ‘costs now – benefits in the future’), as (2) both are generally popular among the general public but (3) as differ clearly in their distributive dynamics. We want to know under what conditions citizens support such proposals and what the conflict lines over such reforms are. Answering these questions helps to develop a better understanding of the conditions under which welfare state reform is (still) possible and ultimately could help policy-makers to design reform proposals in a way that increases their political success.

“Work, Health, and the Welfare State” abstract

In 1845, Friedrich Engels published “The condition of the working class in England”. It was one of the first books that reported the precarious working and living conditions of the proletariat in the era of industrialization. Being part of the working class had distinct implications for peoples’ life and health (Engels 1971). More than 170 years after Engels’ book has been published, labour markets and therewith the structure of (occupational) classes changed profoundly. The rise of the service economy, the feminisation of the workforce, and increases in educational attainment, marked crucial structural modifications and led to new class compositions (Oesch 2006). Thereby, the precarity of working conditions have become multidimensional, meaning that different classes suffer from different forms of precarious employment. Whereas the physical conditions of work have not only improved over the course of the 20th century, but also impact on a more and more shrinking part of the workforce (mainly workers in the agricultural and industrial sector), psychosocial working conditions have gained in importance (Bambra 2011a; Benach et al. 2007). Moreover, psychosocial working conditions such as low control at workplace or job insecurity, impact not only on production workers, but also on the increasing share of service workers and less low-skilled classes such as clerks and (semi-)professionals. Taken together, this means that health inequalities between occupational classes still persist, but they have become multifaceted since different kinds of health-adverse working conditions matter for different occupational classes…

“Asking about welfare priorities: attitudinal constraint in social policy preferences” (with Macarena Ares, Matthias Enggist, and Silja Häusermann) abstract

Recent research in welfare politics and, particularly, on public opinion towards social policies has developed increasingly specific survey items aimed to capture citizens’ preferences on concrete policy issues. We propose to introduce measures of citizens’ welfare priorities, a concept and operationalization that takes into account the multidimensionality and inherent tradeoffs in welfare reform. Yet, even if measures have become increasingly concrete and complex, we are lacking evidence on the extent to which voters actually hold such specific and structured attitudes towards welfare policies. In fact, seminal contributions to public opinion literature have argued that respondents tend to show little structure in their preferences. Relying on novel data inquiring about citizens’ priorities in eight West European countries, we show that respondents hold consistent and structured welfare belief systems, even when confronted with rather complex tasks or explicit policy tradeoffs. These results lend support to the effort of devising more fine-grained measures of public opinion on social policy. Moreover, by addressing individual-level heterogeneity in attitudinal consistency we show that, even if there are some differences related to socio-demographic factors like age, gender, political interest or educational attainment, these differences are rather minor. This implies that consistent welfare attitudes are not exclusive to highly sophisticated individuals, hence validating the effort to gauge more concrete indicators of social policy preferences across the population.

“Fiscal constraint perceptions and how they depress solidarity” (with Silja Häusermann, Matthias Enggist, and Macarena Ares) abstract

Over the past two decades, research on welfare state reform has studied mass and elite politics based on the assumptions that Pierson famously theorized as a context of “fiscal constraint” or even “austerity”. However, it has so far remained unclear whether voters actually perceive the fiscal leeway of welfare reforms as being constrained, and whether this matters at all in terms of their preferences regarding reform. In this article, we investigate the prevalence of fiscal constraint perceptions among West European publics and how these perceptions affect social policy preferences. Using newly collected survey data from eight West European countries we show that perceptions of a fiscal constraint are indeed widespread in all countries and among most socio-structural and ideological groups. Theoretically, such a perception could affect preferences in two ways. It could either entail narrower, egotropic priorities for one’s own benefits or it could lead to a prioritization of needs-based social policies to protect the most vulnerable groups. Preliminary findings suggest that a perception of austerity leads to increased acceptance of welfare state retrenchment and a massive de-solidarization among the more privileged social classes (across political leanings), rather than to increased support for vulnerable out-groups.