Sunday, May 15, 2011

French View of Welfare Shifts towards America.

The controversy in France this week was the criticism of France’s welfare system by the Minister for European Affairs who called the excesses of French “assistanat” [a derogatory term which can be loosely translated as “nanny state”] the “cancer” of French society (France 24) – a provocative statement if any in a country where social policy has been more or less a national consensus.
In practical term, the young Minister, Laurent Wauquiez (who is seen as a moderate in the Sarkozy government) proposes to force welfare recipients to do community work in compensation for the checks.
First a note of cultural background – while this criticism of welfare may not be such a provocative statement for the conservatives in the U.S, it is something unheard of in France. It has actually created division even in the ruling conservative party (UMP) and the young Minister was strongly criticized by the Prime Minister.
That being said, it has also been suggested that the “nanny state” (l’assistanat”) could be one of Sarkozy’s themes of choice for his reelection campaign in 2012 (Le Figaro).

This leads me to think that we may be in for some serious cultural change in France.
Since World War II, “social solidarity” has been considered a universal service which guarantees a minimal level of well-being and social support for all French citizens. It is not without fault and it is very costly. For better or for worse, the notion of “solidarity” is not simply part of the French Social Protection system; it is also part of its national identity (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité) - very much like ‘freedom’ (including economic freedom) is part of the US identity. 

First let’s look at the obvious differences between Europe and the U.S. :
  • the European governments redistribute income on a much larger scale than the
  • European social programs are more generous and reach a larger part of the
  • The European tax systems are more progressive.
  • European regulation is more intrusive, including in the labor market and in the protection of the poor.
There are various tentative explanations for these differences. As this paper by the Harvard Institute of Economic research suggests, some of those differences may derive from differences in ways of thinking and in ideologies. In other words, they may have been shaped by culture and history :

According to the World Value Survey:
  • 29% of Americans think that the poor are trapped in poverty;
  • 60%of Europeans believe the same.
  • 60% of Americans believe that the poor are lazy
  • 26% of Europeans share that view.
You might think this is because the United-States has more social mobility. But as the Harvard paper explains, there is no evidence that shows America to be a significantly more mobile society than Europe. (something we have already discussed on this blog) so either Americans overestimate social mobility in their country or Europeans underestimate it. 

Another possible explanations (not favored by the Harvard paper but one I like) is that two World Wars destroyed so much of European societies that the Socialist and Communist parties were able to take hold and influence policies (even if they didn’t rule), especially after right-wing governments lost their appeal after the defeat of fascist governments throughout Europe. At the same time, in this context of ample destruction,  only governments could manage the national efforts necessary to rebuild and help the millions who lost everything. 

Besides, America had a vast ‘open’ land which allowed many workers to go west for economic opportunities instead of revolting or striking. This historical context may have made welfare and strong social policies more acceptable and necessary in Europe than in the United-States. 

The Harvard Paper has two other explanations: 

One lies in a difference in political institutions: Contrary to Europe America has hardly any type of proportional representation which tends to empower the left, and has more checks and balances with the explicit goal of limiting political extremism and expropriation of private property by the state.

The other, according to the paper is American racial heterogeneity given than in more homogeneous societies it is easier for the relatively well-off to see the poor as themselves, and less so in a society with racial cleavages.
The paper finally evokes other possible explanations such as a culture of risk and individual success transmitted by immigrants to America or the Protestant Calvinistic views that tend to see success as God’s blessing. 

These are interesting explanations that make sense to me. But within the different cultural tendencies in Europe or the U.S. , there are also political patterns that remain along the lines of right vs. left, and in any given country, conservatives have a harsher view of the poor than progressives.
In the US it is the Republicans who are trying to trim welfare again, in France it is the conservative parties and the far-right. It is the old Victorian idea of the “undeserving poor”, and it is shared not only by rich people but also by the working poor.
At the core of this, there is the view that enough poor are taking advantage of the system and do not want to work that it is worth screening the worthy ones and make it harder for all of them. I do not deny there are bad apples, but the question is whether you believe the bad apples are numerous enough that it is worth stigmatizing an entire category of people.  Call me naïve if you wish, but  I do not subscribe to the view that most people on welfare like it this way. It is not just that a question of money but also of personal worth. 

Unfortunately, it is clear that this view is becoming increasingly popular in France, whether this is due to the economic crisis or to greater racial heterogeneity (and the view that immigrants and their children have become increasingly the beneficiaries of social welfare at the expense of the working middle-class).
A recent poll shows that 70% of the French favor the new proposed scheme that would force welfare recipients to do community work in compensation for the checks. In 2010, another poll showed that 80% of the French thought there was too much of the “nanny state” (“assistanat”) in France. This is definitely a major shift towards a much harder social system which may a sign of the times, just like the rise of the Tea Party in the U.S. or the far right in Europe.

No comments: