The Paternalist Politics of Punitive and Enabling Workfare: Evidence from a New Dataset on Workfare Reforms in 16 Countries, 1980-2015

Alexander Horn, Anthony Kevins, Kees van Kersbergen

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Does neoliberalism lie behind the increased use of social policy to control and incentivize labour market behaviour? We argue that this assumed connection is theoretically weak and empirically inaccurate, and we point to an alternative explanation centred on government paternalism. Using a new comparative dataset on workfare reforms, we first describe how the overall balance of punitive and enabling demands placed on the unemployed has changed across 16 countries between 1980 and 2015. We observe a growing number of workfare reforms, modestly tilted towards the punitive side-but without a broad shift towards punitive workfare. We then assess the drivers of policy intervention, finding that government paternalism, rather than neoliberalism, helps us to understand which governments enact enabling and punitive measures. In line with our broader argument, we suggest that this reflects the moral (rather than economic) foundations of social policy.

Original languageEnglish
JournalSocio-Economic Review
Pages (from-to)2137–2166
Number of pages30
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2023


  • H53 Government Expenditures and Welfare Programs
  • I38 Government Policy
  • Provision and Effects of Welfare Programs
  • government
  • ideology
  • political economy
  • social policy
  • unemployment
  • welfare state

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