Beyond ‘methodological nationalism’: adding a territorial perspective to the study of social assistance
In the Journal of Social Policy article “From National to Sub-National? Exploring the Territorial Dimension of Social Assistance in Italy“, Davide Vampa adds a new perspective to the study of social assistance policy in countries that have undergone processes of territorial decentralisation.
Only recently has welfare literature started paying attention to the territorial dimension of social policy in countries that cannot be classified as purely federal but, at the same time, have established sub-national institutions enjoying increasing levels of policy making and spending authority. Italy is a clear example of how territorially fragmented social assistance governance has become over the last two decades. In particular, it is evident that in a context of spatial reconfiguration of welfare some regions play a more active role than others in financing social assistance policies. This has also led to increasing asymmetries in the role that central (or ‘statewide’) authorities play in promoting social policy, since some regions have become more autonomous whereas others are still heavily reliant on central support. Therefore, referring to the ‘nation-state’ as the main level of analysis in the study of welfare systems may overlook increasing within-country heterogeneity and provide a misleading picture. The framework developed by Vampa may be useful for other studies that aim to challenge ‘methodological nationalism’, which still significantly influences mainstream welfare literature. Other important European countries have experienced similar processes. For instance, Great Britain has shifted from a relatively centralised and territorially homogeneous welfare system to a much more fragmented one, with Scotland and Wales becoming increasingly autonomous in the regulation and financing of important aspects of social policy (particularly health care and social assistance). Spain is another case of country which, despite not being federal, has experienced a spatial reconfiguration of welfare authority.
Writing in the Journal of Social Policy, Vampa’s article does not just describe and assess an important phenomenon – increasing within-country variation in sub-national spending activism – but also aims to explain it by referring to key socio-economic, political and demographic variables. His quantitative analysis suggests that social policy in multi-level contexts may not exclusively depend on the traditional left-right cleavage but may be significantly affected by the so-called ‘centre-periphery’ cleavage, based on the political mobilisation of territorial identities. Regionalist or ‘sub-state nationalist’ parties seem to play a more significant role that traditional centre-left parties in expanding the sub-national dimension of social assistance. Regionalist parties are the quintessential representatives of territorial-based politics and although literature has emphasised the important role they play in systems where ‘meso-level’ institutions have been created or strengthened, their role as promoters of sub-national welfare development has not been fully acknowledged. Whereas the long-term strategies of regionalist parties may range from obtaining substantial regional autonomy to campaigning for full independence from the centre, they all focus on the sub-national dimension of policy making. In particular, they are likely to challenge welfare centralism and promote a system of social protection that is less dependent on (or controlled by) national authorities. Italy, with its regionalist parties, provides a good case to test the effect of territorial mobilisation on sub-national activism in social assistance spending. Again, the link between ‘centre-periphery’ party competition and multi-level social policy is relevant in other European countries, including the UK and Spain, where ‘sub-state nationalist’ parties, such as the Scottish National Party, the Basque or Catalan nationalists, have also focused on social policy to fight centralism and strengthen territorial identities. The emergence of increasingly autonomous sub-national social systems may even intensify demands for independence as the Scottish and Catalan cases suggest.
The article also shows that the effect of cross-regional economic inequality on variation in sub-national spending is not as strong (and consistent) as expected, whereas ‘functional pressures’, such as increasing women’s participation in the job market and ageing, seem to play a more significant role. In particular, female employment is positively related to the promotion of sub-national social assistance policies. On the contrary, Italian regions with larger shares of elderly people seem more reliant on central support. This points to the fact that different social needs may have different (sometimes opposite) effects on the level of decentralisation of social policy. Generally, in a context of increasingly service-oriented social systems, it is important to consider how the territorial and functional dimensions intersect.