What Is the Function of the Welfare State?

The question set is so broad that I shall have to be selective. I shall conduct my answer in relation to the British Welfare State. Before we can successfully understand the function of the Welfare State we must first be clear of its definition.

Although I recognise that Britain has a long history of providing forms of welfare to its citizens though relief like the poor-law between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, I intend to look at the post-war history of the Welfare State. I shall then move on to looking at the main provisions that the British Welfare State makes and how it works in a constantly changing society. I shall focus on the intimate relationship between the Welfare State and the family dipping into the function of the Welfare State in education and healthcare.

The majority of people would agree that Britain is a ‘Welfare State’. However, if people were asked what they consider a welfare state to be then the answers would be vague and varied, and it would be difficult to arrive at a widely accepted definition (Marsh, 1964). The concept of a Welfare State is a complex matter. The term was probably first used by Arch Bishop William Temple in his pamphlet ‘Citizen and Churchman’, published in 1941. However, it came into general use in the years after 1945, which marked the end of the Second World War (Sleeman, 1973). ‘

As early as 1939, Sir Anthony Eden had argued in Parliament that war “exposed weakness ruthlessly and brutally… which called for revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the country”‘ (Marsh, 1964). So what exactly were these changes? During the war years proposals were made for new kinds of social policies in the peaceful years to come. The Beveridge Report of 1942 aimed to counter the ‘five giants of illness, ignorance, disease, squalor, and want'(Sleeman, 1979). It considered the whole question of social insurance, arguing for a system of social security organised for the individual by the state.

William Beveridge recommended the establishment of a National Health Service, national insurance and assistance, family allowances, and stressed the importance of full-employment. The term ‘Welfare State’ became a description of what society was to be like in the future. The Labour Party was the new government in 1945. Clement Attlee, the new Prime Minister greatly extended his government’s responsibility for the provision of the social services.

Attlee announced he would introduce the Welfare State outlined in the 1942 Beveridge Report. Thus, he further developed National Insurance, National Assistance and Family Allowances, with the setting up of the National Health Service and the extension of public education provision. Welfare services increased for those in need, typically children, families and the elderly. In 2004, Clement Attlee was voted the most effective British Prime Minister in the 20th Century in a poll of political academics organised by MORI. (Wikipedia Encyclopedia)

It was generally felt that we had a new kid of State, a Welfare State. No longer was the State merely a policeman who kept law and order, or the arbiter who settled disputes and upheld the sanctuary of contracts. No longer was its concern only to relieve the most acute cases of need and inequality. Its business was now positively to promote the welfare of all its citizens. (Sleeman, 1973)

The Welfare State exists to provide a better standard of living for all. This includes provisions for retirement and old age, sickness and accident compensation, unemployment compensation, health insurance and education. However, different social thinkers and political leaders have had very diverse views about the nature and purpose of the Welfare State and what role in society should it take.

Sleeman distinguishes three lines of thought that have been influential. The first line of thought is that ‘the State should provide a floor both of income and of opportunity, below which no one should be allowed to sink’. The State has the obligation to provide those who, for one reason or another, are incapable of undertaking paid work, with a minimum amount of money that will provide the necessities of life for them and their dependents.

The second line of thought is that the State also has the duty to not only help the worse off but also help those who are better off. The State should help the better off to ‘safeguard and improve their position’ in economic and societal terms. This supports State intervention in various formally private services, for example, State pensions and government grants for students wanting to undertake higher education. It aims to make benefits more or less proportionate to individual earnings.

The third line of thought that Sleeman identifies ‘has in many ways conflicted with both of the first two’. It involves using the social services to reduce inequality of income and opportunity. It implies providing social security to those who cannot earn, which is not merely a minimum income (as the first view implies) but rather an adequate amount so that they can have an average standard of living. It also conflicts with the second view in that it implies relatively high, but flat rate, standard rates of benefit.

This is still considered by the majority as the most desirable view; however it is also very costly. (Sleeman, 1979). Many argue that the central function of the Welfare State is a commitment to full employment. Indeed Marsh argues that it is certainly a defining characteristic of a Welfare State.

Since the well-being of an individual and of those dependent on him rests mainly on the income he earns from employment, the acceptance by the State to ensure that as far as possible opportunities for employment are continuously made available is clear indication that at long last a fundamental factor for the welfare of all citizens has become a communal responsibility. (Marsh, 1964)

One must admit that a commitment to providing employment is one of the most effective ways of reducing poverty; however, there is a fundamental problem with it. Cochrane excludes a commitment to full employment as a defining characteristic of the Welfare State because it is ‘gender-biased’ and heavily relies on the male as the ‘breadwinner’ assumption.

Most definitions of ‘full employment’ generally leave women in low-paid and part time work on the continued assumption that most of them will be married and that the welfare needs of married women will be met through their breadwinner husbands. (Cochrane and Clarke (ed.), 1993)

The model of the Welfare State was very much built around the solidity of family life and thus there is an intimate relationship between the two. Moroney states that ‘historically, most social welfare programmes were developed on the premise that the family and the immediate neighbouring environment constituted the first line of responsibility’ (Moroney, 1976). However, over time the way that the typical family is structured has dramatically changed. Such changes have resulted in the family becoming ‘far less willing to carry out those functions that have historically been their responsibility’ (Moroney, 1976).

The structure of the family has changed in various ways. Stereotypically, the male is seen as the sole provider within a household. ‘A father’s contribution to his child’s development was through economic activity’ (Charles, 2002). However, realistically this is not the case. In contemporary society, it is increasingly common for mothers to combine motherhood with paid employment. For example, in 1931 only ten percent of married women were economically active; however by 1987 the figure had risen to sixty percent (Macionis and Plummer, 2002).

The structure of the family is also changing to the extent that more and more families are seen to be ‘collapsing’ (Cochrane and Clarke (ed.), 1993). This is because of the fast rising divorce rates and growing number of illegitimate births. Between 1971 and 1994, the divorce rate in the UK more than doubled, and in the same period there were forty percent fewer marriages (Macionis and Plummer, 2002). This acts as just one example that society is rapidly changing.

Therefore it is important to be aware that the Welfare State does not and can not exist as a static or ‘unitary structure’ (Cochrane and Clarke (ed.), 1993). Rather it is vital that the Welfare State exists as a ‘complex and changing’ entity which evolves with and alongside society. Therefore, with more and more families moving away from the ‘ideal’ structure, the Welfare State has had to make changes in the way that it went about its provisions for families. For example, during the 1960’s and 70’s family social policy developed with the expansion of personal social services.

‘The creation of local authority social service departments focused explicitly on the provision of a ‘family service’. One aim of this was to ‘address concerns about ‘family failure’ by providing social work services to improve family functioning’ (Cochrane and Clarke (ed.), 1993). Specifically related with the Welfare State’s concern over the family are its concerns regarding education and health care. The state is the major provider for education and therefore has assumed a responsibility to supervise it.

Even to live at all in an advanced society necessitates education of a kind that cannot be provided individually by parents by their children, and for the past hundred years or so the State has accepted the responsibility of providing collectively for the formal education of children (Marsh, 1964).

Education in state schools in Britain is free and theoretically expenditure on education is the responsibility of local governments. However, realistically it is very much monitored by the State because education accounts for half of local government expenditure. In the late 1980’s the Conservative government introduced the National Curriculum, which enforced the State’s control over education and ‘marked a significant shift towards centralization’. (Hill, 2000).

Similarly, the National Health Service set up by Clement Atlee’s government on July 5, 1948, very much centralized health care. Financed through taxation, the NHS meant that for the first time health care became free of charge at the point of use and available for all; even temporary residents or people visiting the country. Although it has undergone considerable developments in the way it is run, the NHS is seen by many as the last remaining feature of the traditional Welfare State.

The main reason for this is that at heart the NHS is based upon principles of ‘universal need and available free at point of delivery’ (Kemshall, 2002). The long-term future of the NHS and its day to day organisation are major issues in British politics. The Secretary of State for Health is one of the senior positions in the British Cabinet. Although the state of the NHS is often under much scrutiny, the NHS is respected worldwide as a role model for the welfare state. To conclude, we have leant many things regarding the function of the Welfare State in Britain. The Welfare State of Clement Atlee’s government was very much based on the Social Insurance and Allied support report by William Berveridge in 1942.

This report aimed to eliminate illness, ignorance, disease squalor and want. These aims were very much the function of Atlee’s Welfare State. We have noted the differences in opinion regarding the nature, purpose, function and role in society of the Welfare State. We have also become aware of the debate surrounding full employment as the central concern of the Welfare State. The Welfare State was very much built around the solidity of the family and as we have seen, the concept of ‘family’ is constantly changing. This emphasises the fact that the welfare State must be flexible and must react with and alongside the changes in society.


•Marsh, D. The Future of the Welfare State. Penguin, 1964

•Sleeman, J. Resources for the Welfare State. Longman, 1979

•Wikipedia Encyclopedia

•Macionis and Plummer. Sociology, A Global Introduction. Pearson, 2002

•Miller, C. Producing Welfare.Palgrave Macmillan, 2004

•Sleeman. The Welfare State, It’s aims, benefits and Costs. Unwin, 1973

•Edited Butterworth and Holman. Social Welfare in Modern Britain. Collins sons and co. 1975

•Nickie Charles. Gender in modern Britain. Oxford University Press, 2002

•Edited A. Cochrane and J.Clarke. Comparing Welfare States. The Open University, 1993

•R.M. Moroney. The Family and the State. Longman, 1976

•H. Kemshall. Risk, social policy and welfare. Open University Press, 2002

•Edited by M. Langan. Welfare: needs, rights and risks. Routledge, 1998

•M. Hill. Understanding Social Policy. Blackwell, 2000