A Basic Welfare Framework

Often, it’s said that welfare states are dizzyingly complicated. So many programs! Impossible to rationalize! But this isn’t necessarily true. You can make welfare systems that are bizarrely complicated, but laying out a basic welfare framework doesn’t have to be a byzantine affair. Consider the following four-part framework that captures the vast majority of what a good welfare state seeks to do.

1. Health Care for All
Everyone receives health care regardless of income.

2. Education and Childcare for All
Between infancy and adulthood, every child receives education and childcare regardless of parental income.

3. Income for All
The population is made up of working people (~45%) and nonworking people (~55%). Working people receive market incomes, though sometimes inadequately. Nonworking people do not. Thus, the welfare state should ensure that nearly every nonworking person receives some kind of transfer income.

For children, that’s a per-child cash benefit paid to parents. For elderly people, that’s an old-age pension. For disabled people, that’s disability benefits. For college students, that’s living grants and/or public loans. For jobseekers, that’s unemployment benefits. For caretakers, that’s various caretaker allowances.

Insofar as different transfer income schemes are generally used for different kinds of nonworking populations, this part can seem to be very complicated. But, the basic idea is very simple: attach a transfer income to every nonworking person.

4. Leave for All
Everyone receives paid, job-protected leave for maternity/paternity, sickness, and vacation.

This doesn’t capture all you need a welfare state to do, but it captures the overwhelming majority of it. When you start at the program level, it can look very complicated. But if you start at a sufficient level of abstraction, it’s really not: health care, education and childcare, income, and leave. Add on some means-tested income transfers to pump up the plight of low-income workers and last-ditch public assistance, and you are basically there.