Workfare versus Welfare: The European Approach to Social Support Services – and Life

| Present


Let’s face it: our “war on poverty” and “war on drugs” haven’t worked very well. As Senator Bernie Sanders has pointed out time and again during the current presidential campaign, most new wealth in our country goes to the top one percent of Americans, there is vast income inequality (and has been for awhile), and the poor have only been getting poorer – for decades.

We won’t be delving into our enormous drug and addiction problem here, except tangentially, but we will look at how so many European countries support not only their citizens at the bottom of the economic ladder but all of their people. This basic difference is significant philosophically and practically and needs to be unpacked.

In previous posts, I have pointed out some of the ways that countries in Europe and elsewhere do things differently than we do: paid leave, job security, retirement, capital punishment. The results of these and other “family-friendly” benefits are stunning: European nations have the “most egalitarian and democratic societies the modern world has ever seen” (Steven Hill, Europe’s Promise, 20); robust capitalist economies; competitive businesses; a productive workforce with an average of five weeks of paid vacation a year; and generally much lower poverty, homicide, incarceration, and unemployment rates than ours.

As I have pointed out in other posts, Hill provides an excellent overview not only of the extent of the many successes of the “European way” but also of the philosophical underpinnings. While there are several subtle but real philosophical differences between us and the citizens of other advanced nations, it is their support, via progressive taxation, of all people that is noteworthy. In contrast to this philosophy, we have focused, in most of our social service endeavors, on helping the very poor and the most disadvantaged. At the heart of our national stance is the notion, crafted in the midst of our capitalist, consumerist culture, that the middle class is self-sufficient and does not need assistance. This feeds a few underlying perspectives in certain sectors of our population:

  • If you can’t make it to the middle class, there’s something wrong with you, because America is the land of opportunity and everyone can succeed if they put their mind to it.
  • If you fall out of the middle class, it’s because you’ve either had a temporary setback and thus deserve the services offered to the poor until you can get back on your feet OR you’re lazy and want to take advantage of the system. Thus you do not deserve any services – you’re on your own and deserve to be “punished” by your misfortune.

The focus on the poorest among us produces resentment and stigmatization, not to mention political paralysis. The success of the Trump and Sanders campaigns, both tapping into the frustration of many Americans who used to comprise the middle class, shows that, for all intents and purposes, our “way” has clearly not worked. As we saw when discussing retirement, the dollar does not go nearly as far as it did in the 1970s, and the number of Americans who will be totally dependent on Social Security when they retire: we can no longer save enough because it costs so much just to live.

It’s vitally important that we get out of the “blame game” and the unrealistic emphasis on the fault or shortcomings of individuals who “can’t make it.” It’s long past time to do something different that will actually work, psychologically and economically.

Let’s look, then, at some of the ways that other countries spend their citizens’ tax money that benefit the vast majority of citizens and significantly reduce poverty and dependence, with comparative notes about how we do it:

  • Child care. In Europe, there is a widespread practice of providing “kiddie stipends,” several hundred dollars per month per child to families. “Child care in the United States costs more than $12,000 annually for a family with two children. In some countries in Europe, they pay $1000-$2000 per year, depending on their income. So they are paying at most only one-sixth of what Americans are paying.” Besides some tax deductions, what does the US actually do to help families after the birth of a child?… family-symbols[1]
  • Unemployment assistance. The US “spends a far lower percentage of its economy on monthly compensation for the unemployed than any of the E.U.-15 nations. . . The unemployed in Europe are given various supports and a measure of dignity and respect that are lacking for their American counterparts” (Hill, 88). Unemployed Europeans receive health care and subsidies for housing, utilities, food, and child care, as well as job retraining and counseling. In contrast, “six in ten [American] workers who became unemployed during the economic crash of 2008 did not receive any unemployment benefits because they either did not qualify for various bureaucratic reasons, never applied, or had exhausted their benefits” (Hill 88). Among the reasons for being disqualified were that workers were part-time and may have had multiple jobs. An American who has been fortunate enough to save a year’s worth (or more) of salary who then loses his/her job might survive unemployment all right – but how many Americans can really save to that extent?
  • Health care. Europeans are provided with “quality health care for every single person, the average cost of which is about half of what Americans pay even as various studies show that Europeans achieve better results, health-wise.” Our Medicaid system is better than it was, with the advent of the Affordable Care Act, but we are becoming painfully aware of just how long a way we have to go to salvage our abominable, totally dysfunctional health care system.
  • Public K-12 education. On the whole, the education of children and youth in Europe is excellent, producing young adults who surpass American high school graduates in most measures. While we have many excellent schools in our country, thousands of others are chronically strapped financially, resulting in deplorable physical conditions, … A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that “social and income mobility was significantly lower in America than in many European countries.” This was due primarily to the socio-economic status of the parents: students from low socio-economic backgrounds attend poorer-quality schools. High school students in several European nations discussed in a 2010 report by Cornell professor John H. Bishop rank higher than American students in a number of measures.
  • Higher education. “European children attend university for free, or nearly so, depending on the country,” while American college students graduate with enormous debt (which, of course, is the reason that the cost of a college education has become such a huge issue in the current election cycle). We have had federal financial aid for decades – assistance that is supposed to help both the poor and the middle class – but it has become woefully inadequate as costs have ballooned.
  • Drugs, addiction, public health and law enforcement. Rick Steves has traveled all over and written about Europe for decades and has formulated an informed philosophy on how to deal with what we consider to be illicit drugs (a conclusion also echoed recently in Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next?). Steves has asked himself, why does Europe has have “fewer drug-related deaths, less drug-related incarceration, and less drug consumption per capita than we do here in America”? Steves found that “what most European countries have in common is an emphasis on education and prevention. They believe that, by handling drug abuse more as a public health problem than as a criminal one, they are better able to reduce the harm it causes – both to the individual (health problems and antisocial behavior) and to society (healthcare costs, policing costs, and drug-related crime).” We in the US are slowly getting to this point – and we need to get there much faster.
  • Housing. Europe typically “mixes the affordable units with market-rate housing, so they are not segregated or stigmatized” (Hill, 86). In Europe, public housing and government housing “are so common that this type of housing can’t be hidden away. . . The presence of so much social housing acts in a competitive market as a check against escalating rents and mortgages and against speculation in the private housing sector.”

Despite a few failed attempts in the past to privatize Social Security, it is generally recognized by most Americans that Social Security is a well-run program that has kept millions of senior citizens out of poverty. One of our most successful national programs that benefits most citizens, it is for all intents and purposes a “socialist” enterprise – and needs strengthening, not weakening.

As much as I believe in a “preferential option for the poor” and the Christian notion of taking care of widows, orphans and those who are the most vulnerable, I think that we Americans need to take a hard look at where we put our collective energy and resources. We need to ask at every turn what is the best, most practical, and most effective way to spend communal funds and serve the common good – trying to eradicate poverty in ways we’ve attempted for decades or creatively implementing programs that have been proven to create the highest standard of living the world has ever known, Europe’s?

While paying close attention to our insidious, continuing scourge of racism (which unfairly disadvantages citizens of color even when programs appear to be working fairly well), and while continuing to push for much higher taxes on the very wealthy so that public coffers can grow, we must change our underlying focus as a nation and ask: “What service or program will benefit everyone?” Continuing on our present path is a fool’s errand – one we can ill afford…


Hill, Steven. Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2010.