In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Welfare State Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Social Welfare Data
  • Historical Development
  • Theoretical Classifications
  • Functionalism and Convergence
  • Functionalism and Globalization
  • Sociopolitical Processes
  • Sociopolitical Perspectives and Welfare State Models
  • Pluralism: the Public-Private Mix
  • Gender Perspectives on the Welfare State

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Social Work Welfare State Theory
Neil Gilbert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0002


Public arrangements for social protection were conceived amid the decline of feudalism and the rise of industrial society. Prior to the 19th century many nations had assumed some public responsibility for the welfare of their citizens. The British Poor Law of 1601, for example, had codified efforts to establish local government responsibility for the relief of pauperism. But the birth of the modern welfare state is usually marked by the advent of social insurance in Germany under Bismarck during the 1880s. Most of Western Europe introduced social welfare programs prior to World War I, and the United States enacted national social insurance schemes during the Great Depression of the 1930s. These programs grew and matured, and by the dawn of the 21st century government spending on social welfare in the advanced industrialized nations averaged well over 20 percent of their gross domestic product. The literature on modern welfare states embodies a range of theoretical perspectives on the functions served by these systems of social protection, their conceptual boundaries, and the factors that have shaped their development.

General Overviews

The numerous issues and debates that frame the description and analysis of welfare state theory are covered in several works that offer a broad overview of this field of study. Descriptions and analyses are sometimes cast in terms of left- and right-wing political orientations (Pierson and Castles 2000) and redistribution of resources and relations between state and market (Titmuss 1974). Other dimensions to the debates include gender, ethnic diversity, modernization, and power (Leibfried and Mau 2008).

  • Leibfried, Stephan, and Staffan Mau, eds. 2008. Welfare states: Construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. 3 vols. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

    Surveys many of the central theoretical, empirical, and conceptual analyses in the welfare state literature since the mid-1970s. Volume 1 addresses functionalism, neo-Marxism, power resources, modernization, and sociopolitical issues. Volume 2 includes essays on conceptual definitions of the welfare state and the impact of globalization and Europeanization. Volume 3 reviews issues of gender, ethnic and social diversity, and welfare state outcomes.

  • Pierson, Christopher, and Francis G. Castles, eds. 2000. The welfare state reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Illuminates some of the central theoretical issues and debates surrounding the development of the modern welfare state. The first section describes the modern perspective on the Left and the response from the Right. The second section reviews early 21st-century debates and issues. The final section anticipates the future course of welfare state developments.

  • Titmuss, Richard. 1974. Social policy: An introduction. Edited by Brian Abel-Smith and Kay Titmuss. London: Allen and Unwin.

    A collection of introductory lectures given by Titmuss at the London School of Economics. Among the topics covered is Titmuss’s well-known conceptualization of the residual, the industrial achievement performance, and the institutional redistributive model of welfare.

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