The Nordic welfare model is under economic and political pressure

November 7, 2014 - 06:00

Too many are receiving disability benefit. Too much sickness absence. Too few incentives to work.

Steinar Stjernø. (Photo: HiOA)

We have challenged four social science researchers from HiOA to comment on some of the problems being raised in the debate on the Norwegian welfare model.

The welfare-to-work strategy (arbeidslinja) has been a guiding principle in social policy since the early nineties. Welfare benefits were supposed to be designed in such a way as to motivate people to work rather than live off social security benefits or social assistance. How successful has this strategy been, and what is your impression of the new government so far?

Steinar Stjernø:

"The intentions of reducing the number of people on social security, getting more people into work, and getting more people to pay tax and to participate in financing the welfare state are logical enough, and for the Labour Party they've probably represented an alternative to making budget cuts. Nonetheless, it is a paradox that this strategy should be so firmly entrenched in a country like Norway, where the levels of labour force participation, productivity, and work motivation are so high. Women work more here, we have a large proportion of older employees, and Norway has been spared the problem of widespread youth unemployment. The growth period we're currently experiencing is more than sufficient to maintain today's welfare schemes and the demands we face from the elderly boom.”

Ivar Lødemel:
Ivar Lødemel. (Photo: HiOA)

"The welfare-to-work strategy was also important in Norway prior to 1990, but what happened then – both here and in other countries – was that the 'stick' was wielded more vigorously. The first area where this was done – on both sides of the Atlantic – was in social assistance. In the United States and in several European countries, this activation paradigm has now reached its logical conclusion. Put in the language of the paradigm, you could say that the tailored programmes have come apart at the seams, the carrot has rotted, and all that's left is the stick.
The fact that the trend in Norway lags ten years behind the other countries clearly illustrates that conditions other than the financial crisis are to blame.
Despite having a labour market that works well and that has a high level of participation, we have ended up with a harsher welfare climate and a harsher welfare rhetoric. Rhetoric is followed by policy, and we see an orientation towards a more moralistic policy that focuses on the individual and on the individual's attitude to work rather than on organisational structure."
The new government led by Solberg has reverted to the rhetoric of 1993, when the social welfare recipient's obligation to work was the overriding message.”

The reform of the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration has dominated in the media ever since its implementation in 2006. Everything was going to be simpler and better for the users, but many stories suggest the contrary. What went wrong?

Tone Alm Andreassen:

"Some of the criticism aimed at NAV (Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration) has to do with the politically determined regulations which NAV is charged to administer, though some of it may also be related to the way NAV is organised. Analyses from the evaluation indicate that both the reorganisation and the results went better in small offices in small municipalities than in large offices in large municipalities. It seems that the large offices had a harder time integrating and with gaining an overview of the number of users, while the small offices had the advantage of knowledge about local conditions and workplaces. But small offices have small professional communities and were therefore vulnerable, and size is not everything. NAV uses a lot of time on documenting, reporting, and cross-checking. The desire to manage and supervise contributes to creating a bureaucracy which steals resources that should be spent on qualitative tasks to help those who need help."

Tone Alm Andreassen. (Photo: HiOA)

Today's welfare services are founded on several major reforms, yet the political debate is constantly giving the impression that there's a wish for yet another round …?

Steinar Stjernø:

"All the major reforms were reached after considerable and broad compromises; the pension, tax, and NAV reforms are examples of this. And that is probably how it will continue to be. Instead, there are conflicts over more specific issues, such as family policy, equality versus freedom of choice, privatisation, gay rights, and so on. What is new is that we now seem to be faced with an ideological campaign in favour of fewer benefits and of benefits that are far more dependent on income and length of service. This would mean more restrictive redistribution and lead to greater inequality. It's okay for professors to work longer, but maybe worse for people with more physical jobs."

Espen Dahl:

"Another important perspective that is often forgotten is the certainty that all the problems which the welfare services are supposed to deal with have a social dimension. If you want to do something about health inequalities, length of service, life expectancy, and so on, you need to reach those with lower social status.
Good intentions are all well and good, but they're not followed up with practical policies. The Coordination Reform, the new Inclusive Working Life Agreement, the Rapid Return to Work programme: none of these was planned, developed or implemented with mechanisms that could have an equalizing effect."

Espen Dahl. (Photo: HiOA)

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Professor Steinar Stjernø is former rector of Oslo University College and has recently written books on the welfare-to-work strategy in Norwegian social policy, among others.
Professor Ivar Lødemel is a member of a large-scale international research project entitled Poverty and Shame. The first book from the project was recently published by Policy Press. He is also editor of a new book from the same publisher on activation policies in nine countries.
Professor Espen Dahl managed and recently published a report on a large-scale project on social inequalities in health, commissioned by the Norwegian Directorate of Health. He also leads a large international research project on health inequalities, economic crisis, and the welfare state.
Professor Tone Alm Andreassen is Research Director of HiOA's interdisciplinary Care, Health and Welfare Programme. She has been a key researcher in the Research Council of Norway's evaluation of the reform of the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration and is currently writing a concluding book about the evaluation.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HiOA) is Norway‘s largest state university college. Read more

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