Different lens, new insights? Benefit receipt data as an alternative means to study the extent, development and effects of public welfare provision in Europe
Since the emergence of modern welfare states, scientists as well as politicians and public opinion makers showed great interest in how welfare states differ across countries, how they change, what drives their variation and change, and what social outcomes they produce. This has contributed to a considerable amount of literature in comparative welfare state research, including the discussion of the so-called ‘dependent variable problem’. Central to this debate is the lack of a common understanding of what the welfare state as a research object – that is as a dependent variable – actually constitutes and how it should be measured in quantitative terms. The issue fuelled vivid theoretical and methodological contributions and -- by proposing various indicators that quantitatively assess and describe modern welfare states as a social phenomenon -- these contributions advanced our empirical understanding of what modern welfare states are and do, how they differ and change.
As can be seen from this literature, some authors use country-level social expenditure data as an approximating indicator of the extent to which a welfare state provides for its population. Others use country-level social rights information on, for example, income replacement rates of benefits or the duration for which a benefit is paid to estimate the extent of public welfare provision. This PhD thesis draws intellectual inspiration from the debate and makes two important contributions to existing literature: First, it innovates the field of comparative welfare state analysis by developing, applying, and advancing benefit receipt data as an alternative type of indicator in the cross-national and over-time comparisons of the extent of public welfare provision. Second, it addresses new empirical questions including enquiries on how cross-national and over-time differences in benefit receipt can be explained and how the extent of public welfare provision measured by benefit receipt data influences social outcomes.
One of the central findings in this dissertation is that benefit receipt data can add another valuable means to study welfare states. It has the potential to reveal changes in welfare states that cannot be seen by means of social expenditure or social rights data. It also helps to bring nuance into our understanding of what constitutes a generous welfare state by going beyond the budgetary dimension of spending data and the paper reality of ideal-typical data on benefit rights. Further, this alternative indicator allows to estimate who benefits particularly from certain welfare provisions. Since benefit receipt data is based on representative individual-level information about access to a benefit and the amount of received benefits, it can also help addressing questions that ask how one of these aspects influences a number of social outcomes, for example labour market participation.
A second central finding is that the various indicators of the extent/generosity of public welfare provision have different theoretical premises and assumptions. Treating these indicators as interchangeable can lead to sensitivity issues. Therefore, their use should depend on the research question(s) and be based on theoretical assumptions rather than on data availability. Another important point which the dissertation displayed is that indicators are typically an approximation of an abstract (research-) object, not tools of proof. We can use them to direct attention and to channel the analytical focus on a particular concept but it is very likely that there is noise and partly misleading information. Therefore, every indicator has to be used with caution not only with regard to the specific research question it aims to answer but also with regard to the data on which it is based. Where possible and meaningful, it is advisable to use a combination of available `lenses' to get better insight into a particular research subject.