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There are three main interpretations of the idea of a welfare state:
- the provision of welfare services by the state.
- an ideal model in which the state assumes primary responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. This responsibility is comprehensive, because all aspects of welfare are considered; a "safety net" is not enough. It is universal, because it covers every person as a matter of right.
- the provision of welfare in society. In many "welfare states", welfare is not actually provided by the state, but by a combination of independent, voluntary, mutualist and government services.
The development of welfare states
Modern welfare states developed through a gradual process, beginning in the late 19th century and continuing through the 20th. They differed from previous schemes of poor relief in their scope and relatively universal coverage. The development of social insurance in Germany under Bismarck was particularly influential. Some schemes, including those in Scandinavia, were based largely in the development of autonomous, mutualist provision; others were founded on state provision.
Examples of early welfare states in the modern world are the Sweden and New Zealand of the 1930s. Changed attitudes in reaction to the Great Depression were instrumental in the move to the welfare state in many countries, a harbinger of new times where "cradle-to-grave" services became a reality in contrast to the harsh mass-poverty of the Depression. In the period following the Second World War, many countries in Europe moved from partial or selective provision of social services to relatively comprehensive coverage of the population.
Arguments for and against the Welfare State
The main arguments for the Welfare State are:
- humanitarian - the idea that people should not have to suffer unnecessarily;
- democratic - voters in most countries have favoured the gradual extension of social protection;
- ethical - adherents of the ethical doctrine of altruism believe that altruistic behavior is a moral obligation
- religious - including both the duty of charity and the obligation for solidarity;
- mutual self-interest - several national systems have developed voluntarily through the growth of mutual insurance;
- economic, because welfare serves a variety of functions in economic policy;
- social, because welfare is used to promote social objectives in relation to, e.g., education, family and the organisation of work. 
The main arguments against the Welfare State are:
- libertarian - that state intervention infringes individual freedom and that the individual should pay for his own consumption i.e. no one has the right to have someone else pay for his consumption via the state;
- conservative - that welfare has undesirable effects on the way people behave, fostering dependency or decreasing motivation;
- economic - that welfare provision is costly, in the sense of requiring high taxation;
- individualist - that welfare provision burdens rich individuals by taxing their wealth in order to help the poor.
The welfare state and social expenditure
Welfare provision in the contemporary world tends to be more advanced in the countries with stronger and more developed economies; poorer countries generally have more limited welfare services . Within developed economies, however, there is no association between economic performance and welfare expenditure (see A. B. Atkinson, Incomes and the Welfare State, Cambridge University Press 1995).
The figures below show welfare expenditure as a percentage of GDP.
- Australia (18.0)
- Austria (26.0)
- Canada (17.8)
- Denmark (29.2)
- Ireland, Republic of (13.8)
- Italy (24.4)
- Finland (24.8)
- France (28.5)
- Germany (27.4)
- New Zealand (18.5)
- Norway (23.9)
- Spain (19.6)
- Sweden (28.9)
- United Kingdom (21.8)
- United States (14.8)
Figures from the OECD for 2001 
- Public ownership
- Mixed economy
- Social welfare
- Social security
- Social Policy Virtual Library
- Social Sciences Information Gateway
- Social Policy on the Web
- Introduction to Social Policy: The Welfare State
Data and statistics
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