In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Welfare State Development in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Welfare Regime Typologies
  • Policy Effects
  • Policy Recommendations

Political Science Welfare State Development in Latin America
Amanda L. Beal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0130


The term “welfare state” refers to government programs aimed at protecting or promoting economic and social well-being. These programs include (1) social insurance such as work-related injuries, disability, maternity and childbearing, unemployment, retirement, and survivor’s benefits; (2) social assistance programs, such as the Bolsa Familia programs instituted under President Cardoso in Brazil; and (3) basic social services, such as education and health care. Otto von Bismarck, a chancellor of Germany in the 19th century, is often called the founding father of the modern welfare state. Directly following his reforms, social program initiatives swept across western Europe. These countries are pioneers of social policy development. However, a less known and even less acknowledged fact is that Latin American countries were also pioneers in welfare state development; Uruguay has the oldest modern pension program, predating that of Bismarck by almost sixty years. Trends in welfare state research do not acknowledge this fact either; the study of comparative welfare states was largely focused on the Western world until the late 1900s when cross-national studies of developing welfare states emerged. This trend has influenced the evolution of welfare state research in less developed countries (LDCs), including Latin America. Studies on LDCs are highly influenced by the previous research on welfare states in advanced developed countries (ADCs). Thus, it is impossible to understand welfare state development in Latin America without becoming somewhat acquainted with the foundational debates in ADC and cross-national explanations of welfare. It is highly useful to become acquainted with the political and economic histories of these countries as well. This article starts by assessing some of the most pertinent background sources on welfare state development: first, the article addresses the foundational debates in the literature on ADCs and the political and economic histories of countries in Latin America and then moves on to research data sets and databases of information on these programs and the factors often studied with them. After this, the article delves into welfare state development in LDCs, especially Latin America: first addressing the classification of welfare regimes across countries and within regions; second, reviewing domestic influences, such as political institutions and popular demands; and third, explaining theories of international influence, such as globalization and diffusion. These areas are not mutually exclusive, as will become evident throughout the article. However, authors usually emphasize one or two influences over the others. The most recent research has focused either on the role of globalization or—in the opposite direction—on subnational level influences and processes; both of these areas are discussed throughout the article. After addressing these issues, the article turns to a less studied area within the political science research: namely, the impacts of welfare policies on inequality, and other indicators of economic and social well-being, and research on welfare policy prescriptions or recommendations.

General Overviews

Two main collections serve as essential introductory texts on welfare state research, Castles, et al. 2010 and Pierson and Castles 2000. The topics related to these sources are so expansive that they could be listed in any of the sections of this article, but the chapters are short and lack detailed discussions, especially with respect to regional comparisons. They also lack sufficient analysis on welfare states in the developing world, including those in Latin America. Therefore, students and scholars alike will need to delve much deeper into the literature to become informed on the state of the literature in Latin America. In addition, it is necessary that all readers become acquainted with the basic political-economic histories of these countries. Economic and political development in LDCs occurs later and is less stable than that of western Europe. Just at the time that welfare-state research on Latin America was emerging, so too were attempts to explain this instability. One work in particular, Dornbusch and Edwards 1991, is lauded as a clear explanation of populist policies and outcomes in the early to mid-1900s. Edwards 1995 extends our understanding of the 1970s debt crisis and the subsequent economic reforms that began in Chile but spread throughout Latin America in the 1980s. These reforms are frequently discussed in the welfare-state literature, so it is imperative that all readers become familiar with this time period. Other works, especially Ferranti, et al. 2004; Frieden 1991; Haggard and Kaufman 1995; and Kaufman and Stallings 1989, attempt to explain inequality in Latin America and how the debt crisis and economic reforms are associated with democratic transitions in Latin America. Democratization in Latin America is also a much-discussed phenomenon in the welfare state literature, making these works important background for welfare state debates in this region. Offering a somewhat contrarian view, Malloy and Seligson 1987 suggests that the recent democratic transitions in Latin America are more stable than those before, but there is a pattern of rotation between authoritarian and democratic regimes throughout the region. This is an important study for understanding political (in)stability in Latin America.

  • Castles, Francis G., Stephan Leibfried, Jane Lewis, Herbert Obinger, and Christopher Pierson, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Welfare State. Oxford Handbooks in Political Science and International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199579396.001.0001

    A highly accessible collection on the state of the literature. The handbook focuses mainly on domestic pressures and influences, though some space is given to international influences as well. Recommended for all readers.

  • Dornbusch, Rudiger, and Sebastian Edwards, eds. The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226158488.001.0001

    An impressive work on how populist leaders mismanage macroeconomic policy, including high government spending on income redistribution at the expense of balanced budgets and inflation.

  • Edwards, Sebastian. Crisis and Reform in Latin America: From Despair to Hope. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Accessible for most readers, this book explains the debt crisis of the 1980s and subsequent economic reforms in Latin America.

  • Ferranti, David, Guillermo Perry, Francisco Ferreira, and Michael Walton, eds. Inequality in Latin America: Breaking with History? World Bank Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1596/0-8213-5665-8

    A comprehensive review of the existence, persistence, and causes of inequality in Latin America. Recommended for all readers.

  • Frieden, Jeffry. Debt, Development, and Democracy: Modern Political Economy and Latin America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

    A comparative analysis of debt reform and democratization in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela, including the mobilization of political groups. Recommended for students and researchers.

  • Haggard, Stephan, and Robert Kaufman. The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

    An explanation of how economic crisis affects democracies in transition in Latin America, especially with respect to how these governments respond to established interest groups, new interest groups entering into the political arena, and the role of political party cohesiveness and stability.

  • Kaufman, Robert, and Barbara Stallings, eds. Debt and Democracy in Latin America. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1989.

    A pioneering work on the 1980s debt crisis and resulting political liberalization. Recommended for students and researchers.

  • Malloy, James, and Mitchell Seligson, eds. Authoritarians and Democrats: Regime Transition in Latin America. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987.

    In contrast to many other studies, this book suggests that the 1980s wave of democracies in Latin America is much more stable than those of the past.

  • Pierson, Christopher, and Francis Castles, eds. The Welfare State Reader. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2000.

    An accessible work on the approaches to and perspectives on welfare interventions, including the left-right debate, gender and welfare, the concept of “welfare regimes,” the economic impact of welfare, the role of globalization, demographic impacts (such as aging societies), and political challenges to the welfare state. Recommended for all readers.

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