Sociologist: lower rates of poverty the result of “robust social policy”

A profile of sociologist David Brady summarizes his arguments about how a larger welfare state limits poverty:

Brady’s 2009 book Rich Democracies, Poor People: How Politics Explain Poverty, offers an analysis of social inequality that is counter to the prevailing notion that it is an inescapable outcome of individual failings – known as the “culture of poverty” – or the result of rising unemployment. It shows that among affluent western societies there are immense variations in poverty: from almost 20% of the population in the US at one end of a scale, followed by Canada, Australia, Spain and Italy, to less than 10% at the other end – where the Scandinavian countries sit – with the UK and Germany somewhere in between.

The reason for such stark differences lies not with the numbers of single mums or jobless people but with whether a country has made larger investments in the welfare state, argues Brady. For those countries that have spent proportionately more on pensions, healthcare, family assistance and unemployment compensation – what we in Britain call the welfare state and Brady refers to as “social policy” – poverty levels will be lower…

British attitude surveys have shown a marked decline in support for redistribution since the mid-1980s, and opinion polls suggest a majority of the British public believes that the government pays out too much in benefits and that welfare levels overall should be reduced…

He challenges poverty campaigns in the UK to address head-on politicians’ concerns around benefit dependency and the so-called something for nothing culture. “Spending on social policy is something for something,” he asserts. “[It is] a social investment in the next generation – on good schools and childcare – that manages against risk by preventing people from falling into poverty. And, above all, it is a citizen’s right.”

While this profile talks about how Brady’s work fits with current British politics and government cost-cutting, I imagine he would have some commentary about the current situation in the United States.

I would be interested to hear Brady discuss whether there are trade-offs for this kind of welfare state spending or whether it really is more good than not. For example, if you spend all of that money fighting poverty, does it limit a country’s abilities to spend in other important areas?

This gets more complicated when Brady introduces the ideas of rights. In America, we often have costs-benefits arguments about government spending – can we afford it or is it worth the money spent? If we spend money in one direction, say, promoting job creation, will we get money on the other end, say less paid out in unemployment? The idea of rights shifts the discussion away from just the finances and suggests it is more about values than money.

Maybe I should just track down the book…

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