DOI: 10.1177/09589287231217377 ISSN: 0958-9287

Welfare-state selectivity, universality, and social trust in Europe, 2002–2019: Bringing deservingness back in

Jan Mewes
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • General Social Sciences

Social trust is a moral resource with a normatively highly desirable pay-off. Previous research argues that universal welfare state programmes ‘make’ social trust whereas means-testing programmes ‘break’ it. Despite its important implications for welfare-state design, comparative longitudinal evidence for this hypothesis is scarce. To test whether within-country changes in social trust are associated with within-country changes in total, means-tested, and non-means tested social protection expenditure, I thus merge country-year specific ESSPROS welfare spending data with cross-country survey data from 30 countries that participated in the 2002–2019 European Social Survey. Results from multilevel regression models show that neither within-country changes in total nor means-tested or non-means tested social protection expenditure predict social trust. Based on insights from the welfare deservingness literature, the second part of my analysis concentrates on welfare spending directed at two different life-course risks, with sickness representing a risk that the public widely considers to be ‘deserving’ of welfare support, and unemployment acting as an ‘undeserving’ risk. I find that, within countries over time, means-tested healthcare expenditures predict decreases in social trust, whereas non-means tested healthcare expenditure is associated with increasing social trust. My results thus lend support for the hypothesis that welfare-state selectivity and universality can contribute to the making and breaking of social trust, but only when interventions target life-course risks that the public considers ‘deserving’ of welfare state support.

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