NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Feminization Of The Welfare State

November 20, 2000

An older version of the welfare state is now vying with a newer one for political dominance in the U.S. and Europe, says social thinker Irving Kristol, co-editor of the Public Interest.

The original welfare state, from 1900 to 1945, was largely paternalistic in conception, since the male-dominated trade unions played such a crucial role in bringing it into being.

  • In this sterner, limited version of the welfare state, government provided a helping hand for those in need through no fault of their own -- a "safety net" -- but wanted individuals and families to be self-reliant, self-supporting and able to cope.
  • But since World War II, as women entered the labor force and educational institutions in large numbers, and as feminist ideas became popular, another version of the welfare state developed -- one politically more appealing to women.
  • Beginning in a massive way with Great Society programs in the 1960s, the welfare state became more a national exercise in "compassion" toward an ever-expanding proportion of the population than a helping hand to the needy.
  • This feminized welfare state is supported by the "helping professions" -- social work, nursing, psychology, public health, journalism -- particularly by the female-dominated teachers' unions.

Adam Smith talked easily about the importance of "sympathy." Sympathy is most easily directed toward those who want to help themselves and need a helping hand. Compassion, as it is used now, is an indiscriminate response to suffering -- even when necessary or deserved.

Since compassion has no limits, the maternal welfare state will sooner or later run into economic reality. This has already happened in Europe, where economic growth is impeded by high taxation and overly generous welfare expenditures. Thus European governments will move, however reluctantly, toward a more paternalistic, limited version of the welfare state.

Source: Irving Kristol, "The Two Welfare States," On The Issues No. 2217, October 2000, American Enterprise Institute, American Enterprise Institute, 1150 Seventeenth Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 862-5800.


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