Welfare Dependency and Underuse Essay

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Welfare dependency refers to the use that people make of publicly provided cash benefits/transfers or human services. Welfare underuse is the term applied when people entitled to publicly provided benefits and services fail to do so.

Welfare dependency is a feature of advanced industrial societies with developed welfare states, whose citizens enjoy specific ”social” rights, for example, to social security, healthcare, social support and education. The premise on which the advocates of state welfare provision promoted it was that, as societies become more complex, the ”states of dependency” that arise at various points in the human life-course may be ”recognized as collective responsibilities” (Titmuss 1955: 64). The policy makers who fashioned the modern welfare states of the post-World War II era favored guaranteed basic minimum state provision, but they also, to varying degrees, expected people to depend so far as possible on income from paid employment and on support from their families.

Since the 1970s preoccupations with the nature and extent of welfare dependency have increased as support for state welfare provision has declined (e.g. Esping-Andersen 1996). Neoliberals urged that current levels of state welfare spending were unaffordable, while neo-conservatives blamed an alleged moral decline in western society upon welfare dependency. Critics of the latter thesis draw on evidence which suggests that people who depend on state welfare exhibit no signs of a ”culture” of dependency but subscribe to the same values as everybody else. Additionally, longitudinal social data enable us to see that for unemployed people and lone parents, for example, welfare dependency is generally a relatively short-lived, not an enduring experience.

Welfare underuse can in part be attributed to the stigma potentially associated with welfare dependency. It is important to distinguish between the underuse of cash benefits, transfers or their equivalent in kind (e.g. food stamps or food cards), as opposed to the underuse of public or social services. The underuse of cash benefits is often referred to as a failure of ”take up.” This can result from the stigma attaching to certain kinds of benefit (especially conditional or means-tested benefits), to ignorance on the part of potential claimants, and/or to the administrative complexity of the schemes.

The underuse of public services may similarly result from the structural and administrative features of those services. Of particular concern is the differential use of services by different social classes or minority groups. Healthcare and education, may be more extensively used and provide greater benefits to middle-class families than to the poorest families who need them the most. Benefits from advances in medical science and health technologies tend to be unequally distributed, not only globally, but even within rich countries. In this way, inequalities in income may be translated into inequalities in life chances and of power.

The majority of the population in capitalist welfare states will during particular stages of their life-course make use of publicly provided or state financed health, education and welfare services. Policy-makers and sociologists may be concerned about whether, by whom and why dependency upon such provision becomes excessive; or conversely about whether, by whom and why such provision may be underused.


  1. Dean, H. and Taylor-Gooby, P. (1992) Dependency Culture: The Explosion of a Myth. Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead.
  2. Esping-Andersen, G. (ed.) (1996) Welfare States in Transition. Polity, Cambridge.
  3. Titmuss, R. (1955) A lecture republished in Alcock, P. et al. (eds) (2001) Welfare and Wellbeing: Richard Titmuss’s Contribution to Social Policy. Policy Press, Bristol.

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