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Social Policy and Development Programme Paper 2: Social Indicators and Welfare Monitoring

29 Aug 2000

  • Author(s): Gøsta Esping-Andersen


In this paper prepared for the 1999 Copenhagen Seminar for Social Progress, Gøsta Esping-Andersen reviews approaches to welfare monitoring since the 1960s. The attempt to record and measure changes in welfare over the past four decades has been influenced by a number of factors, including the changing ideological climate, practical difficulties with concepts and data, and objective changes in social conditions.

Countries around the world also have different overall perspectives on welfare provision: they define welfare goals differently and have developed distinct regimes—or sets of policies and institutions—for meeting these goals. Even advanced industrial nations have differing conceptions of welfare provision, ranging from the minimalist approach of Anglo-Saxon countries to the social-democratic focus of Nordic societies. The first devotes primary attention to identifying the poor and needy, while the second is more concerned with monitoring equal access to resources among the population at large.

Each of these is based on a specific theoretical approach to welfare. The first, and most prevalent, way of thinking about social policy rests on the calculation of risk. A second way of thinking about welfare is concerned primarily with ensuring that individuals can mobilize resources in times of need. A third current of thought concentrates on meeting basic needs. Yet to capture the dynamics of people's lives—or what might be called their changing life chances—it is necessary to adopt a different approach. In the latter part of the paper, Esping-Andersen illustrates the utility of what he calls "multidimensional resource monitoring". Using this approach, it becomes possible to identify resource inequalities and changing patterns of disadvantage, to link these to specific social processes, and to redesign policy accordingly.

In the author's opinion, the last approach offers the best opportunity to measure social progress or regress in contemporary societies, and should be more widely used than is currently the case. And although this approach tends to be applied only in advanced industrial nations, there is no reason why it should not be equally useful in many other countries around the world.

Gøsta Esping-Andersen is affiliated with the Università di Trento and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

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