Changing principles in European social security

W.J.H. van Oorschot, J.J. Clasen

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The provision of social security benefits rests on normative principles of social justice. Most strongly manifest in earnings-related social insurance, the principle of reciprocity has been increasingly questioned on grounds of equity, adequacy and fiscal viability, in the wake of socio-economic changes (e.g. post-industralisation, globalisation) and political developments (e.g. Europeanisation). Universalist programmes seem extraordinarily expensive under tight public budgets, and could be criticised as inequitable at a time when middle classes increasingly rely on individual and occupational forms of income security. The principle of need appears to have become more prominent within modern European social security systems keen on targeting resources. Is there empirical evidence which would reflect these alleged trends? Concentrating on three principles inherent in social security transfers (need, universalism and reciprocity) the major concerns of this article are conceptual and empirical. First, it addresses the problem of operationalising social security principles and delineating indicators of change over time. Second, it applies two of these indicators in order to identify and compare the extent to which the three principles have gained or lost prominence since the early 1980s, with empirical evidence taken from the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany and Scandinavia. The article argues first that, applying either indicator, there is no cross-national trend towards squeezing reciprocity-based social insurance, but that a convergence between erstwhile strong (Bismarckian) and weak (Beveridgean) principled programmes can be identified. Second, a clear trend towards needs-based social security can be identified within the ¿legal¿ but not within the ¿volume¿ perspective, at least in some programmes and some claimant groups. This is due to both policy changes and favourable labour market conditions. Third, two countries indicate very diverse trends. British social security is distinctive in terms of the erosion of Beveridgean reciprocity, as well as the growing strength of the needs principle. In the Netherlands, there have been considerable shifts in principles underlying certain programmes, but no general trend in either direction can be observed. On the whole, Dutch social security continues to exhibit a strong mix of principles.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)89-116
JournalEuropean Journal of Social Security
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2002


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