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.

“Place and Policy Preferences – Geographic Disparities in Attitudes towards Social Policies in Germany” abstract

The rise of the knowledge economy has led to a bifurcation between prosperous, often urban, areas and left-behind regions. The political implications of this divide have become visible with Brexit, Trump, and the rise of populist parties across Europe and beyond. Besides voting behaviour, place has been proven to affect a range of socio-cultural attitudes and identities. However, the structuring of economic policy preferences by place remains unclear. Distinguishing between four types of regions (declining rural, declining urban, booming rural, and booming urban), I argue that differences in material self-interest and ideological predispositions explain regional variation in support of different types of social policies, in particular, social investment vs. compensation. Combining original survey data on voters’ preferences with municipal-level data in Germany, I show that demand for both investing and compensating social policies is higher in declining than in booming regions. If urged to choose between the two types of interventions, booming and urban regions are more likely to prefer investment over compensation than declining and rural regions. These findings contribute to a bigger discussion on compensating ‘left-behind’ regions, and thereby, moderating populist appeals. Although much needed investments are popular in declining regions, introducing them at the cost of cutbacks in compensations may be counterproductive.

“Welfare state priorities and vote choice: why and how socio-economic attitudes continue to affect electoral behaviour” abstract

A large body of literature has convincingly shown that preferences for redistribution is a powerful predictor of vote choice for mainstream parties. However, contemporary welfare politics not only centre around questions of welfare generosity, but increasingly around priorities for certain types of policies, in particular social investment vs social consumption. This article argues that welfare priorities play an important and so far neglected role in explaining vote choice, especially when it comes to green and radical right parties. The empirical analysis based on original data on vote choice, welfare attitudes, and voters’ perceptions of parties’ welfare stances in eight West European countries supports this argument. While attitudes towards welfare generosity is the main explanatory variable for choosing to cast a vote for either left or right parties, it is relative priorities for social investment that explain electing a party within the left or right bloc respectively. To be more precise, economically left voters with strong social investment priorities are more likely to vote for green rather than centre-left parties, whereas economically right voters with strong social consumption priorities are more likely to vote for radical rather than centre right parties. Further, the explanatory power of priorities is decisively linked to perceived congruence between voters and parties. The findings emphasise the importance of socio-economic attitudes in vote choice even for parties that are typically considered to cater to voters based on socio-cultural issues.

“Inclusion or Segmentation – The Politics of Welfare Reform in 21st Century Western Europe” (with Silja Häusermann, Macarena Ares, and Matthias Enggist) abstract

Which social policies are the right ones to address the social and economic challenges that Western European societies are facing in the 21st century? These challenges are both numerous and tremendous in their magnitude: rising inequalities in incomes and opportunities seem to taint the rise of the knowledge economy; demographic ageing threatens not only the financial viability of old age pension systems, but also their ability to prevent old age poverty; and the massive political polarization over questions of immigration and integration raises the question of how to draw the boundaries of the community of solidarity that European welfare states have built over the 20th century. How can these challenges be addressed with the tools of social policy? How much resources can and should be spent on correcting market outcomes and equalizing incomes? Should the welfare state honor its promise of providing encompassing social security by shielding citizens from the risks and challenges of the early 21st century, or by helping them adapt to these new realities and by expanding the pool of solidarity to new risk groups? The answers different citizens and political parties in Europe give to these questions differ dramatically. This book studies political conflicts over the provision of public welfare in the early 21st century, identifying structural and coalitional opportunities for reform across policy fields and regional contexts. Its main claim is that the question of inclusion vs. segmentation has become a key dividing line in the politics of welfare reform.

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

Important reforms are necessary to adjust today’s welfare states to the challenges of post-industrial knowledge economies. Public opinion, however, is often sceptical towards reforms whose benefits will accrue only in the future. We analyse the conditions that affect citizens’ support for such future-oriented reforms on the basis of survey experiments from two novel public opinion surveys in nine countries. Our contribution is twofold. First, we show that ‘supply side factors’, referring to characteristics of the reform design itself (its policy field, distributive reform effect, time horizon, and costs) are less relevant in explaining support than ‘demand side factors’ (self-interest, ideological predispositions). Second, we demonstrate that among these ‘demand-side factors’, attitudes on the socio-cultural dimension of political conflict are key to explain support for future-oriented reforms. More generally, we thus highlight the role of ‘second dimension politics’ for welfare state reform.

“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.

“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…

“Attitudinal consistency in citizens’ social policy preferences” (with Macarena Ares, Silja Häusermann, and Matthias Enggist) abstract

Studies of public opinion on welfare policy have zoomed-in on citizens’ preferences on fine-grained policy issues. Yet, while survey measures have become more concrete and complex, we lack evidence on whether voters hold such specific and structured attitudes towards welfare policies. We rely on novel data on citizens’ social policy preferences in eight West European countries to study attitudinal consistency across different policy domains of differing complexity. Addressing both logical and relational consistency, we find that most respondents hold consistent and structured welfare belief systems, even when confronted with complex tasks and tradeoffs. Moreover, by addressing individual-level heterogeneity in attitudinal consistency we show that differences related to socio-demographic factors are rather minor. Consistent welfare attitudes are not exclusive to highly sophisticated individuals. These results validate the effort of devising more fine-grained indicators of social policy preferences (and other topics) 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.