The Universal Welfare State: Theory and the Case of Sweden

Publication Date01 December 2004
AuthorAndreas Bergh
Date01 December 2004
SubjectOriginal Article
The Universal Welfare State: Theory and
the Case of Sweden
Andreas Bergh
Lund University, Sweden
In the existing literature on welfare state typologies, the concept of the universal welfare state
is not defined precisely enough to allow for comparisons of universality over time and between
countries. In this paper, I discuss some problems with the way the term ‘the universal welfare
state’ has been used and I suggest possible solutions. Among other things, I propose that the term
‘universality’ be used to describe the provision of a specific welfare benefit independently of indi-
vidual income and/or other individual characteristics. It should also be used to describe the cov-
erage of welfare benefits rather than their size. Based on the theoretical discussion, a number of
possible indicators of universality are applied to the case of Sweden in the 1990s. The conclusion
is that, despite its economic crisis, universality in Sweden did not decrease.
The universal welfare state continues to be a popular topic among social scientists.
Research in this area has generated a large literature spanning numerous issues.
For example, some authors argue that the degree of welfare state universality in a
society is positively linked to levels of trust (Rothstein, 2002), social capital (Kumlin
and Rothstein, 2003) and to the possibilities for poverty relief (Korpi and Palme,
1998). Despite this large and growing body of work, the research literature lacks
a clear-cut and non-ambiguous definition of ‘the universal welfare state’. This
causes problems, not only for theoretical research, but also for empirical investi-
gations such as cross-country comparisons and evaluations of changes in univer-
sality over time.
In this paper, I review the literature on welfare state classifications and discuss a
number of problems with the way the term ‘universality’ is used. For example, it
is used both to describe the size and coverage of benefits and to describe welfare
states and welfare programs. To amend these problems, I formulate a number of
questions that, if explicitly answered, allow measurable indicators of universality
to be constructed. To illustrate this, I apply the theoretical discussion to the case of
Sweden and evaluate the universality of the Swedish welfare state during the
1990s. A number of authors have pointed to Sweden as an example of the
universal welfare state in practice (Stephens, 1996; Cochrane and Clarke, 1993;
Esping-Andersen, 1990). But that research was carried out before or even during
the economic crisis of the 1990s, a crisis that struck Sweden with an impact con-
siderably larger than in many other countries. To examine whether this led to
changes in the degree of universality during the 1990s, I contrast the actual situ-
ation in Sweden with theoretical models of universality. The deviations are used
to identify indicators of universality that are followed during the 1990s. The results
indicate that universality was roughly constant during this period.
POLITICAL STUDIES: 2004 VOL 52, 745–766
© Political Studies Association, 2004.
Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
In the next section, the literature on welfare state typologies in general, and the
universal model in particular, is reviewed and analyzed. A brief discussion of the
so-called ‘paradox of redistribution’ (Korpi and Palme, 1998) and the politics of
the welfare state is also included here. In the third section, the case of Sweden
during the 1990s is studied.
The Universal Welfare State in Existing Literature
There is some confusion regarding the appropriate labels for different types of
welfare states. For example ‘universal’, ‘social democratic’, ‘institutional’, ‘com-
prehensive’, ‘encompassing’ and ‘Scandinavian’ describe roughly the same thing.
Rothstein (1998) points out the correspondence between universal and institu-
tional welfare states, Sainsbury (1991) notes the equivalence between institutional
and comprehensive welfare states, and Stephens (1996) claims that social democ-
ratic and institutional welfare states are equivalent.
In this paper, I will use the term ‘universal’, except when referring to other sources
(when the original label is used). This seemingly crude choice is made after mature
consideration.1Ascribing different meanings to different labels would likely cause
more confusion than the assumption that all labels refer to roughly the same
thing. Furthermore, other labels may be more difficult to interpret or might send
thoughts in very specific directions. For example, the terms ‘social democratic’ and
‘Scandinavian’ are based on party politics and geography; but however obvious
this may seem from a historical point of view, there are no clear theoretical argu-
ments why this type of welfare state is more social democratic than, say, liberal or
more Scandinavian than, say, North American.2As will be shown, it can also be
argued that the term ‘universal’ is in some sense appropriate with regard to what
it reasonably refers.
A Literature Review
The literature review that follows is based both on classics in the field and on recent
research where the concept of the universal welfare state is studied or at least
implicitly defined. The contributions covered are Titmuss (1974), Esping-Andersen
(1990), Sainsbury (1991, 1996), Stephens (1996), Korpi and Palme (1998),
Rothstein (1998, 2001) and Timonen (2001).
The classification of different types of welfare states has been a big research topic
for social scientists at least since the work by Titmuss (1974), who makes a dis-
tinction between three ideal types of welfare state: the ‘marginal’ (typical for
Anglo-Saxon countries), the ‘industrial achievement’ (typical for Central European
countries) and the ‘institutional’ (typical for the UK and Scandinavia). His institu-
tional model (sometimes referred to as the ‘institutional redistributive’ model)
combines the principles of comprehensive social provision with egalitarianism and
guarantees benefits to all citizens or residents. Thus, the welfare state provides a
set of welfare services and benefits that everybody enjoys on an equal basis. The
current standard reference is Esping-Andersen (1990), who identifies three differ-
ent models, similar to those identified by Titmuss: the ‘corporatist’, the ‘liberal’ and
the ‘social democratic’. Sweden is an example of the last model:

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