Social service quality enhances social cohesion, even in tough times
A blog post by Rhys Andrews and Sebastian Jilke based on their article in the Journal of Social Policy
Recent debates about the future of the welfare state have gone hand in hand with interest in what shapes Europeans’ perceptions of how well different social groups get along. One potentially importance influence on social relations within European countries is the relative quality of the services provided by the welfare state. Acording to institutional theories of social capital, when public institutions perform well, citizens are likely to believe disagreements between different groups can be successfully resolved. Social services are especially important institutions in this respect, since the ‘street-level bureaucrats’ who provide such services shape what it means to be a citizen through the role they play in dealing with clients. At the same time, interactions with social services represent a structured ‘space of association’ through which group needs can be addressed and inter-group dialogue can take place.
Despite the potential for high-quality social services to make a positive contribution to the cohesiveness of society, it is conceivable that this positive performance pay-off may be lost if people experience high levels of economic strain. Economic hardship tends to lead individuals to make unfavourable comparisons between their own lot and that of outgroups, which can undermine a sentiment of everyone “being in it together” when times are tough. It is therefore possible that the potential for good social services to inspire a positive sense of common citizenship becomes damaged by the experience of economic inequality.
To assesss the relationship between social service quality, economic strain and social cohesion, multilevel regression analyses of the perceptions of the relations between the major social groupings in European societies were conducted for 27 member countries of the EU using the Eurobarometer 74.1 on poverty and social exclusion from 2010. For the purposes of our analysis, social cohesion was measured as a low degree of perceived social tensions among key socio-economic groups, specifically: the poor and the rich, managers and workers, old and young people, and different racial and ethnic groups. The quality of social services was gauged using perceptions of the quality of long term care, child care, public employment services, social housing, and social assistance, while economic strain was measured by assessing how easy it was for people to make ends meet.
The results of our analysis suggested that there is a positive relationship between social services quality and perceptions of social cohesion – though with some evidence of decreasing marginal effects at very high quality levels. At the same time, perceptions of social cohesion are negatively associated with economic strain. Nevertheless, the largely positive effect of social service quality on social cohesion did not appear to be influenced by the experience of having difficulty making ends meet. For people satisfied with the social services that they receive, economic strain made it no more or less likely that they would perceive tensions between different social groups within their country.
Our research suggests that efforts to improve the quality (or performance) of social services can make a vital contribution to social solidarity and the experience of citizenship within European societies. At the same time, the findings imply that more should be done to understand and support the work social service organizations undertake to incorporate all social groups within the welfare state. The provision of key social services now requires that multiple local actors work closely together and that street-level bureaucrats have the skills and capabilities essential for dealing with a diverse range of clients. How, and in what ways these goals can be achieved against the backdrop of fiscal austerity remains a major challenge for policy-makers and researchers alike.