The Welfare State in Ireland: Challenges and Opportunities

Some reflections on E O’Shea and B Kennelly’s article ‘The Welfare State in Ireland: Challenges and Opportunities’, in G. Taylor’s ‘Issues in Irish Public Policy’.

This article is in six parts. Firstly it introduces an empirical overview of the welfare state, concentrating on social protection spending. As it uses GDP as a measure Ireland performs poorly.

It then presents different models of welfare regimes. Interestingly the authors focus upon the evolution of the welfare state in different countries, and the relationship between this development and capitalist production. Does post-fordist production causally determine the structure of welfare regime? The authors highlight some problems associated with ‘typologies’ of welfare regimes, namely the lack of emphasis upon theories of power, sources of expenditure, and the diversity with ‘types’.

Thirdly, it concentrates on how the Irish Welfare state has performed. They rely heavily upon O’Connell and Rottman’s analysis, emphasising the importance of the state as an agent of change in Irish society. The fundamental problem presented to the reader is ‘to what extent has inequality been reduced in Ireland as a result of state intervention’? Does the state reinforce market inequalities? Is this the result of a pay-related welfare state? The authors use pensions and healthcare as an example of how the state introduces a tiered system by facilitating those who can afford private purchase to supplement basic provision. Tax relief is the primary mechanism in this facilitation.

Research problem emerging: Should private consumption be subsidised by the state?

The paper then goes on to discuss ’employment, incentives and social policy’. It states an interesting fact that the foundations of social welfare in all market economies are firmly rooted in the labour market. This calls into question the critique by Kirby et all that Ireland’s welfare state ought to be understood as a Scheumpterian Workfare state. But, hasn’t this labour market foundation always been the case in welfare regimes (even in Scandinavia). This section concludes that there is danger in seeking to address the disincentive effect of welfare on the few , that social protection for the many will be undermined.

The paper then contextualises social policy in the EU. Why does the EU not have a coherent social policy framework? Why has the social dimension of Europe remained fragmented and uncoordinated whilst the economic has not? The emphasis has been upon the need to create jobs through greater labour market flexibility, leading to equality of participation in the market economy. Does the diversity of welfare state, which is linked to differences in economic development make social policy harmonisation difficult?

What are the future priorities in the Irish social welfare system? Do we need to move beyond the simple dichotomy of employment or unemployment, to concentrate on issues such as the type of work, the organisation of work, and the training programmes available to those already in work? What about community and socially oriented work? Why the emphasis upon market-oriented work in the Irish welfare system?

Emerging research problems/ questions: In our current market downturn should the state focus upon creating jobs in the social economy? Is there space outside the private and public sector for job creation?

Finally, and the article ends by proposing this question: should social protection be replaced with a new form of ‘social participation, linked to the introduction of a basic  income guarantee for all people?

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