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Are universal welfare policies really more popular than selective ones? A critical discussion of empirical research

Tijs Laenen (Centre for Sociological Research, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium)
Dimitri Gugushvili (Centre for Sociological Research, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium)

International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy

ISSN: 0144-333X

Article publication date: 22 February 2021

Issue publication date: 13 October 2021

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Abstract

Purpose

In the social policy literature, it is often assumed that universal policies are more popular than selective ones among the public, because they supposedly generate broader self-interested coalitions and are considered morally superior. The present article revisits and challenges this assumption.

Design/methodology/approach

The article critically reviews the existing empirical literature on public support for universal and means-tested welfare schemes.

Findings

The main conclusion is that the popularity of universal vis-à-vis selective welfare remains very much an open question. First, the studies that are typically cited to support the claim that universalism is indeed more popular are inconclusive because they conflate the institutional design of welfare programs with their respective target groups. Second, there is considerable variation in public support for universal and selective welfare across countries, time and policy domains.

Research limitations/implications

The findings suggest that future research should focus on scrutinizing under which circumstances – when, where and why – universal social policies are more popular than selective ones.

Originality/value

The article makes an original case for considering perceived welfare deservingness of social policies' target groups alongside the policy design when studying popular support for differently targeted welfare schemes.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

Funding: This work was supported by Internal Funds of KU Leuven [PDM/19/023] and the Flemish Research Foundation (FWO) grant # IRI I001519N.The authors are grateful to Wim van Oorschot for his thoughtful comments on the earlier version of the paper. Valuable feedback was also received from the participants of Tilburg-Leuven-Rotterdam joint seminar “Culture, Politics & Society” held in Antwerp on 06/03/2020. Any remaining errors are the authors’ responsibility.

Citation

Laenen, T. and Gugushvili, D. (2021), "Are universal welfare policies really more popular than selective ones? A critical discussion of empirical research", International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 41 No. 9/10, pp. 1134-1147. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSSP-01-2021-0010

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited

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