Social Welfare

Hamilton Cravens, Ning De Coninck-Smith, Bengt Sandin. Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: In History and Society. Editor: Paula S Fass. Volume 3, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.


Modern social welfare and social welfare institutions have undergone three distinct periods of historical development. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, in North America and in western and central Europe, reformers tinkered with a variety of social insurance schemes, mainly pensions for the aged and certain voluntary or market-based remedies. They also organized various institutions designed to care for the mentally ill, promote public health, ward off epidemics, expand public education, and improve the lot of entrepreneurs, artisans, mechanics, and the poor. These programs influenced only fractions of any nation’s population. This was an age of liberal and democratic idealism, and these efforts reflected the spirit of that age. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, in the second period, the United States, together with Great Britain, Imperial Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, and France, had various social insurance schemes that embraced some groups in their polities, thus reflecting commonly embraced notions of efficiency and hierarchy. The third phase began with the great depression of the 1930s, especially with the United States and its broad Social Security program and with most of western and central Europe, which adopted something like an all-embracing social welfare state in the wake of World War II (1939-1945). In the 1990s and early 2000s opponents in Europe and the United States made some politically effective criticisms of the welfare state, thus suggesting that yet another phase of modern social welfare’s history may be about to begin, or even that the social welfare experiment may be terminated.

Social Welfare and Nineteenth Century Liberalism

In the early to mid-nineteenth century, three nations-Great Britain, the German-speaking states that Otto von Bismarck unified under Prussian hegemony in 1871, and the United States-did the most with social welfare. These three nations had vigorous public and political histories, large middle classes, considerable industrial development, and laissez-faire market capitalism.

Great Britain. In Great Britain, the Elizabethan Poor Law since the seventeenth century had mandated that each of the kingdom’s fifteen thousand parishes was responsible for maintaining the poor, leading to the creation of workhouses where the poor learned to support themselves. The law neither alleviated nor solved the problem. In the early 1800s and into the 1830s, a radical individualistic laissez-faire ideology reigned in Britain, stalling any collective or governmental efforts at regulation and reform. By the early 1830s circumstances had changed. For one thing, laissez-faire ideology now contemplated the competition of interest groups in the economy, in the context of which government could do more. And, leading from this ideological shift, the new entrepreneurs of the early Industrial Revolution wanted the realm’s labor force to be mobile, following capital investment wherever it established factories, shops, and stores. Hence Parliament enacted the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The new law freed labor to move about for jobs in a rapidly industrializing economy and dramatically reduced the expense of poor relief.

A major midcentury issue was public health, which encompassed cleanliness, disease, and related issues. As more people worked in factories, health conditions often deteriorated, and voluntary or individualistic solutions were proven ineffectual. Within a few years Edwin Chadwick, who had worked for the enactment of the Poor Law Amendment, took the lead in advocating sanitary surveys in Britain’s urban places of work and of residence, insisting that filth, crowding, and disease were all related and that sanitation was good business as well as humane and pleasant. In 1842 came the famous report on the sanitary condition of the working population. Filled with hard-won, reasonably accurate facts and figures, the report argued that filth, the degradation of the population, and the potential destruction of the economy were related. Creation of a national permanent board of health was politically and ideologically infeasible, but the board of health Parliament created, with Chadwick serving as commissioner, generated much information and knowledge in its five years of operations (1848-1854). Sanitation was now an important factor in economic and political public policy, and in maintaining and advancing the population’s vigor, energy, vitality, and even fecundity. It remained important into the next century, when the germ theory of disease redirected public health and sanitary science efforts.

Protection of women and children flowed from the original Poor Law as had protection and liberation of male adult workers. In 1802 the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act, an outgrowth of the Crown’s responsibilities under the Poor Law for all apprentices, women and children alike, forbade certain gross working conditions, such as poor sanitation, danger from machines, and night work, but only in cotton mills. Not until passage of the Factory Act of 1833 was there effective enforcement of such stipulations. The broader struggle over factory regulation was part of the larger conflict between the nation’s two elites, the landowners and the manufacturers. But factory workers also organized themselves to fight for better conditions.

The Factory Act of 1833 protected only children and applied to all textile factories (except lace). But the inspectors appointed under the act were charged with noting the welfare of their charges in all senses. The movement spread to inspection and regulation of working conditions in the mines, where conditions were even worse than in the textile factories. As the reports came out, Victorian Britain was shocked at the potential for disease, accidents, and even immorality between the sexes in the coal mines, leading to the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, which forbade the employment underground of females and of boys under age thirteen. The political momentum created by this measure helped the movement for the ten-hour day, enacted in 1847, which limited the workweek to fifty-eight hours for all females and for boys thirteen to eighteen years of age; and for another measure, passed in 1850, that stipulated specific working hours and meal times. By the 1870s Great Britain had several more laws that provided more regulations to protect industrial and domestic workers. As yet there was no legislation to prevent occupational diseases, nor was there much in the way of any schemes for social insurance for anyone. All had been accomplished as governmental regulation, meaning inspection of conditions, recommendations to Parliament for action, and precedents for forbidding the worst circumstances of work insofar as the public and its representatives were concerned. In all this, the image of the working child had great symbolic value, as writers such as Charles Dickens knew.

The German states. The German-speaking states in the nineteenth century were also developing the economy and outlook that led to welfare state actions. It took the German states some time to recover from the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and much longer to become politically unified. Enlightened absolutism ruled these states at the eighteenth century’s end, and the German physician Johann Peter Frank’s (1745-1821) system of “medical police,” in which inspectors of the prince or the king ferreted out unsanitary conditions believed to be unhealthy, held sway into the early nineteenth century, reinforcing legendary German cleanliness-liberal applications of hot water, soap, and lye. The new liberal Germans of the early nineteenth century, however, sought to break away from absolutism, enlightened or not, taking enlightenment rationalism and applying it to the marketplace, while at the same time having to put up with older forms of mercantilism and absolutism in matters of political economy.

There were certain conditions that made a social welfare state conceivable in Germany. From German feudalism came the intertwined notions that the state was obliged to promote social welfare and to exercise social control, ideas that all groups in Germany accepted according to their interests. Even liberal thinkers combined the new ideas of a state based on law with these older notions of the state. Pioneers of German social science insisted that an active state must intervene in industrial society to promote the commonweal. The higher civil service and the professions supported the new liberalism, whereas the commercial classes and industrial bourgeoisie did not, fearing unbridled economic growth and a resulting revolutionary proletariat. Before the 1830s, German liberals championed self-help societies for the workers, thus embracing a laissez-faire individualism paralleled in Britain, but such views later turned into adaptations of social welfare to the new industrial conditions in the cities. The tool of state intervention was powerful, authoritarian German bureaucracy. After the Revolution of 1848, the German states seized the initiative and laid down certain benefit and regulation schemes as palliatives for their enhanced state authority. Most important was Prussia’s 1854 law turning poor relief into a modern contributory welfare program, which became the original blueprint for the later Bismarckian welfare state.

As factories grew in Germany, and as German science and technology rivaled that of England, Prussia led the other German states to regulate child labor, to enact protective conditions for women, and to provide for certain basic decent conditions of labor for the working classes. At midcentury and later the public sanitation movement swept through the German-speaking lands. Liberalism had penetrated German society and culture to its limit as Bismarck, chancellor to the Prussian king, unified the German states as the German Empire, under Prussian leadership, in 1871.

The United States. Nineteenth-century political and economic liberalism held sway even more powerfully in America than in Europe. The federal constitution adopted in 1789 made possible an internal customs union within all the states, thus achieving laissez-faire economic liberalism in one dramatic step. This ideal state would permit rational, civilized individuals to pursue commerce and trade with a minimum of interference. Within a generation the American Revolution had swept away mercantilism’s remnants, thus bringing about a new individualistic democracy centered on civilized, rational individuals who would pursue the republican virtues with minimal governmental interference. Either volunteers or for-profit private firms took responsibility for most municipal and county public services. When the public health was threatened-as it was by cholera epidemics in 1832-a temporary board of health would be appointed to attend to the emergency, enforcing quarantines, burying bodies, and the like, and would disband once the danger was gone. The federal government could do, and did do, even less, attending to the public lands, to matters of war and diplomacy, to the delivery of the mails, and to advancing the interests of economic groups represented in the federal political system. From the 1830s to the 1870s American assistance to the needy was largely charitable rather than government sponsored. For those needing care and supervision, so-called moral reformers devised many institutions as remedies, such as orphanages for children without parents, houses of refuge for juvenile offenders, and organizations like the New York Children’s Aid Society and the Societies for the prevention of cruelty to children that sought to protect those who they believed were abused or neglected. All were usually drawn from among the urban poor. But the state governments, at least in the North, did develop mass education schemes. By the 1880s and 1890s, however, there were signs of a shift toward a new model of society and thus of social welfare.

Social Welfare in an Age of Hierarchy, Efficiency, and System

Between the 1870s and the 1920s, the Western world was dominated by a new set of ideas about how to organize human experience. It was an age of science, of expertise, of hierarchy, of orderly systems of nature and of society, of efficiency. How to make society work at peak efficiency was the underlying issue to many Europeans and Americans. Such notions embraced social welfare and its institutions as well. Many of these changes came from new political situations as well as new worldviews. In Scandinavia, for example, it was farmers, not the progressive middle classes or the socialist left, that led the fight for tax-supported universal pensions-in Denmark in 1891 and in Sweden in 1913, after protracted political struggles. In Imperial Germany, it was the “Iron Chancellor,” Bismarck, who pushed for workers’ pensions on a contributory, not a tax-based, scheme, hoping to dampen workers’ enthusiasm for socialism and revolution and to make them beholden to the conservative Junker class and the Prussian state. This social insurance scheme covered industrial accidents, illness, invalidism, and old age. Its enactment resulted from many compromises; workers, employers, and the state all contributed to the fund. And the scheme, in various reincarnations, has survived into the twenty-first century and has been widely imitated, in Hungary (1891), Austria (1889), Switzerland (1911), and even France (1928). The German states, like many industrialized polities on the continent, had already enacted legislation regulating the labor of children, on the grounds that a healthy adult population was impossible without such measures. In the early twentieth century, societies for infant welfare in such cities as Berlin and Düsseldorf took the lead in educating mothers about child health, functions that local governments later appropriated. From 1873 on there was a national public health bureau, and in the 1900s the public hygiene movement spread throughout the Second Reich.

If Bismarck inaugurated a welfare program to counter revolution, the British in the early twentieth century did so in the face of mass poverty brought about by the nation’s industrial decline as compared with the United States and Imperial Germany. In the early 1900s, certain British politicians noted the greater efficiency of the German welfare system and its effectiveness in promoting the Reich’s economic competitiveness. David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, in particular, led the campaign for what became the National Insurance Act of 1911, which brought unemployment compensation, health and disability insurance, hospital insurance, and even maternity allowances in its wake. In turn these programs upgraded the health prospects of the poor and helped unify the nation politically. Eventually the British system was more generous than the German one, although those who lived under the German system found it very satisfactory. Europe, then, by the early twentieth century, had created a variety of nationally administered and financed welfare schemes to cover unemployment, illness, disability, and old age. In these five decades many of the European nations also imitated the United States in adopting mass public education and mass adult male suffrage.

In this age of system, America did innovate in social welfare. And its differences with its European sister national cultures seemed to derive from the same factors that made the European states different from one another: largely questions of politics, the state, and temporal context. Americans rebuilt the shattered states of the Confederacy and created mass public education, promoted public health and sanitation through the establishment of the U.S. Public Health Service, regulated foods and drugs, and established a large and eventually generous pension program for Civil War veterans (including some Confederate veterans) and their dependents, meaning widows and orphans. This federal program, which conveniently discharged the huge surpluses generated by high protective tariffs, was self-liquidating: when the last veteran died, it did too. But it represented the idea of social insurance of the age: that a group could insure itself against the vagaries of life. It differed in no important respect from contemporary European schemes. America made an important contribution to welfare ideas thanks to its tradition of middle-class women participating in politics with an agenda for child welfare, education, and morality, just as American men concerned themselves with the welfare of adult male workers. It was the child welfare movement of the period from 1900 to 1920 that advanced social welfare and its institutions in America and, by example, in the Western world. A maternalistic welfare state, still largely rooted in the states and the cities, not the federal government, almost perfectly balanced the British-German patriarchic welfare programs. The American child welfare movement emphasized child health and protection, and new institutions such as the juvenile court, foster care, the children’s bureau, and mother’s pensions were all defined as ways to increase social efficiency while they also expressed a new consciousness of care. Many of these also reflected deep-seated white prejudice against persons of color and the “new” immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

The Welfare State in Depression and World War

In the years between the 1920s and the 1950s, notions that government and the private sector could work together were the watchwords of the age. While the Scandinavian countries had already established fairly comprehensive social welfare states, the United States took steps toward the modern, all-embracing welfare state with the adoption of social security through the Social Security Act of 1935. A large difference between the American and European systems had to do with the lack in the former of a national health scheme, whether national health insurance or nationalized medicine. The reason for this was the rising power and prestige of American doctors in the twentieth century based on their identification with experimental science. Social Security made possible old-age pensions on a tax basis, as a supplement to private pension schemes. Through aid to dependent children, later Aid to Families with Dependent Children, child welfare became part of the new federal program of welfare, just as unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and other programs came to constitute the American welfare state. In the 1960s the American welfare state began to expand dramatically in the numbers of its client populations.

During this time, much of the European continent was ravaged by war, and the Marshall Plan, to rebuild Europe, laid the groundwork for political reform and provided the requisite energy and creativity for a much expanded welfare state. The British Labour Party, which gained control of Parliament and the government in the immediate postwar period, enacted legislation that extended the welfare state by nationalizing certain industries and creating the National Health Service (1948), which put most doctors in state employ, and cautiously began to extend public education as well. Following its creation in 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany (or West Germany) soon revived and extended the Bismarckian welfare state, now with generous pension schemes; first-rate medical care combined with a sophisticated national health scheme; expanded public health, sanitation, and other welfare provisions; and even Kindergeld (money for children) to encourage families to have more children and rebuild the national population. Other European nations extended the national welfare state in the post-World War II era, many such as France and Sweden by providing each family with specific allowances to ensure that children not grow up in poverty. In addition, they provided nursery schools, day-care centers, paid vacations, and free higher education.

Wither the Welfare State?

In the closing decades of the twentieth century, there were signs of a revolt against the welfare state, an expensive luxury for the underdeveloped or Third World nations and a costly investment for many of the developed nations. As the populations of the developed nations grew older and less able to contribute to the maintenance of a national welfare state, perhaps the end of the welfare state was in view. In any event, it would appear that modern social welfare and its institutions have always risen and fallen in tandem with the trends in national politics-politics being the art and science of what is possible at any given time.

Comparative Twentieth-Century Developments

The welfare state in the twentieth century emphasized publicly sponsored care, in contrast to earlier state forms, which left care to the family, the local community, professional associations such as guilds, or in the nineteenth century, if no other form of help was available, philanthropic societies. Welfare states are, however, not identical. Scandinavian systems, with their predominantly universal benefits and extended involvement in the security and well-being of their citizens, can be said to represent one model. Other models are the liberalist, or Anglo-Saxon, model, which helps only the weakest members of society, and the continental European model, which links social benefits to conditions of work and pay.

This system of classification is not, however, universally accepted. Some researchers have pointed out that these models do not exist in unadulterated forms and that the differences between them produce disparate results if they are compared according to social sector rather than according to whether universal benefits apply. If we look, for instance, at how welfare states care for younger and older members of society, France with its special family allowances and public preschool provision (écoles maternelles) resembles Scandinavia more than it does Germany or Holland. In these two countries consideration for motherhood has played an important role in the formation of social and labor policy during the twentieth century. There is, therefore, a relative shortage of day-care institutions but provision for lengthy maternity leave. This illustrates how the construction of welfare states is influenced by and also helps form existing views of childhood and parenthood.

This is also illustrated by studies made by the political scientist Göran Therborn of how welfare states handle children’s rights. He concludes that Scandinavian countries should be regarded as being in the vanguard here, since even at the outbreak of World War I the aim of legislation relating to the family was to protect the interests of the child, including ensuring equal rights for legitimate and illegitimate children. A logical result of this was the extension of the child’s legal status, which ensued in the 1970s and 1980s. This involved laws against hitting children and the obligation to take children wishes into consideration in cases of separation and child custody disputes. These developments have ensured a central place for Scandinavian countries in international human rights work and in the forming of the 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child. To explain this development, Therborn cites the presence of a weaker patriarchal system, a weaker church, and a more individually oriented welfare model in Scandinavia than was the case in the remainder of Europe.

Despite often being linked to the growth of social democracy, the welfare state in Europe has had broad political backing throughout the twentieth century, even from conservative political regimes. The organization of welfare corresponds, then, as much to the underlying features of a country’s political culture as to political ideology. Behind the first experimental schemes for single mothers, children, and the poor at the end of the nineteenth century lay a combination of consideration for the population’s size and quality-noticeable particularly in Germany, but also in France-and a desire to take preventative measures against social unrest at a time when immigration to the large urban centers threatened to topple the social order. The welfare state has also been linked to the development of bourgeois democracies, in that participation in decision-making and the right to vote both presuppose some degree of education and of homogenization of social and cultural differences. The belief that welfare would create greater equality was widespread, and the welfare state and democracy have provided political legitimacy for each other. The interaction between democracy and social welfare has also resulted in the establishment of new methods for the control of the population. Thereby the Janus face of the welfare state-social assistance on one side and control on the other-became visible. As a result, in the building of the welfare state the citizen has changed in status from being the passive object of state care to being a partner to the many experts of the welfare state in everything from health to child rearing, and in this way has acquired increased visibility as an empowered individual. This applies to adults and children alike.

There has also been debate about the extent to which the welfare state was an extension of the philanthropic commitment that developed in the nineteenth century, especially to the poor city dwellers, or whether it was, in fact, a break with the past. In fact, the collaboration between public and private initiatives, especially in areas relating to family and children, played an important part well into the twentieth century. In Catholic countries this involvement, particularly in ecclesiastical circles, has been maintained to this day, as evidenced by concerns for the single mother, child nutrition, and children’s homes. As an extension of philanthropic work and founded in the developing commitment by the welfare state to the life of the citizen from the cradle to the grave, a series of new professions arose, including health visitors, preschool teachers, and doctors, dentists, and psychologists specializing in child health. An important aspect of this professionalization was its mutual international inspiration. American health care schemes, for instance, were incorporated into Danish and Finnish reality in the 1940s and 1950s; in the same way Scandinavian countries borrowed heavily from each other, for instance in the 1930s, when declining population was an issue.

The Welfare State and Parenthood

In considering the change in parenthood during the epoch of the welfare state, certain features draw immediate attention. The social content of parenthood has changed due to demographic, social, and cultural changes, and also as a result of changes in the scientific understanding of the relationship between children and parents.

In northern Europe it is no longer a disgrace to be a single mother, or for a child to be born out of wedlock. Equally, parents wishing to adopt receive the same support as other parents, and artificial insemination is free for heterosexual couples; 40 percent to 50 percent of all children in northern Europe are born to couples who are not married, and 90 percent of all women now have children, while 25 percent were childless 100 years ago. The reasons for this increase in motherhood are that 100 years ago many women were unmarried and that motherhood was not compatible with the professions a woman could work in outside the home, such as teaching and nursing. It may also have been caused by involuntary sterility due to infection. Women at the turn of the twentieth century had an average of four children, compared to two at the start of the twenty-first century, but they became mothers at roughly the same age, between twenty-five and thirty-five. It was only in the 1950s and 1960s-the years when the family headed by a male breadwinner was at its height-that birthing age was lower. The late birthing age at the beginning and end of the twentieth century has two different explanations. Firstly, in agricultural societies starting a family required a degree of financial stability. Secondly, in welfare societies many young women wish to complete their education before starting a family. Together with the increasing number of separations-which affect about 50 percent of all marriages-this reflects the individualization of parenthood. Parenthood is nowadays a project of individual importance to men and women and a right which the state has taken upon itself to guarantee.

In southern Europe, too, changes are on the way. Birth rates changed during the final thirty years of the twentieth century, from being the highest in Europe to being the lowest. In countries such as Italy, Spain, or Greece, 40 percent of all women give birth to no children or to just one child. Those children born, however, are generally born to married couples and face less likelihood of experiencing parental separation compared with children in northern Europe.

The making of parenthood into a science is to a large extent due to the intervention of the welfare state. While philanthropists might previously have regarded mothers as incompetent and fathers as social problems, the broadening of state involvement to include all citizens meant that parents gradually acquired the status of partners in a common project of child rearing based on the newest scientific insights into children and their development. The first step down this road involved child welfare and maternity services, which arose as a result of concern in the period between the wars against infant mortality and the falling birthrate. In the sphere of education and day care, a similar development could be seen.

If in the nineteenth century medical science determined what a good childhood was, its role was supplemented by psychology in the twentieth. A modern pattern of child rearing emphasizing the child as a self-sufficient individual has gradually replaced an older, more authoritarian view founded on a regard for quietness, regularity, and cleanliness. Just as parents were expected to participate with the welfare-state professionals as partners in a common child-rearing project, a similar development took place for children-especially in Scandinavian countries-around 1980. Children were regarded as being competent and as having rights-to physical and psychological integrity among other things. This development has been sanctioned through the statutory prohibition of physical castigation of children (in Sweden first, in 1979), the establishment of the first child ombudsman (in Norway first, in 1981) and the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.

The Welfare State and Childhood

If changes in childhood are seen in context of the development of the welfare state during the twentieth century, three features stand out. Childhood has become institutionalized, professionalized, and more homogeneous in the sense that the formerly middle-class concept of childhood as an independent life of play and learning has become the norm, transcending divisions of gender, culture, and social class. The differences between the north and the remainder of Europe, which have been noted in relation to parenthood, are also clearly discernible here.

The universalization of elementary schooling after the 1870s involved marked changes to children’s lives. Gradually work took second place to school. The development was supported by legislation against child labor, even though this legislation was primarily directed at factory work and so affected neither children working in agriculture and in various non-factory forms of urban work nor girls’ unpaid help in cleaning or minding smaller siblings. At the same time a series of new initiatives focusing on the child’s physical and mental health were linked to schooling: school meals, school baths, school medical inspections, holiday camps, school gardens and playgrounds. In this way children from the broad social spectrum gradually came to have a share in a childhood which had previously been the preserve of middle-class children. Children’s work has, however, not entirely disappeared; in the poorer areas of southern Europe, the child’s economic contribution to the family is still important, while in northern Europe children work to line their own pockets.

In other areas, too, the child’s life changed. Infant mortality was markedly reduced after 1900, just as mortality among older children fell. The causes for this were improved living conditions, penicillin, and vaccination. Prolonged life spans enabled parents and grandparents to live for a longer portion of their children’s and grandchildren’s lives, and toward the turn of the twenty-first century children once again began to have a greater number of siblings, this time in the form of half-sisters and -brothers in the wake of increased divorce and separation.

It was, however, not only the spread of schooling and the gradual disappearance of children’s work that altered children’s lives. Just as important was the increasing tendency since the 1960s for mothers to work outside the home. Where many had previously combined family life with a part-time job-assisting on the farm or in the shop or washing or cleaning in the neighborhood-they were increasingly away from home by day. The child’s life became institutionalized, a process that took place in two different ways. In Scandinavia a combination gradually developed comprising relatively short maternity leave, short working hours, and an extended system of day care and kindergarten for children one year and above. In the rest of Europe, maternity leave generally covers the child’s first three years, after which the child begins to go to school for half the day. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that 80 percent of mothers of small children in Sweden and Denmark have full-time jobs, while in southern and mid-Europe they are mainly housewives or have part-time jobs. For single mothers in countries such as Portugal, Italy, and Spain, full-time work is the rule with less comprehensive public care for single-parent families.

Institutionalization allows the ordinary young child and his or her abilities to be visible to the eyes of the professional. While conceptions of the good childhood adopted around 1900 had arisen through studies of poor and sick children, the new, scientifically based norm of the good life for the child was increasingly based on studies of ordinary children. The institutionalizing and professionalizing of childhood resulted, therefore, in new standards, but also in a harmonizing of children’s lives across gender, class, and cultural difference as public child-minding gradually became part of daily life for more and more children through the 1980s.

This move toward regimenting childhood has also been supported by a huge investment in training, with a resulting democratization of the system of higher education, which gave children from the countryside, and not least girls, the chance to acquire further education. radio, television, and most recently the Internet have also contributed to the establishment of a common set of references among children and young people, primarily nationally but also increasingly internationally.

Harmonization is, however, far from synonymous with all children having the same living standards. Data from the European Union show that 9 percent of children and young people live in families that have difficulties making ends meet. Marginalization has a particularly severe impact on children of single parents or children from immigrant families. The worst scenario is in England, where 23 percent of all children live in poor families. England, together with Greece and Ireland, has the highest rate of infant mortality in Europe. Finally it should be mentioned that in the Scandinavian countries children and young people today struggle with problems relating to lifestyle-weight problems, smoking, alcohol, and stress.


The dream of the good childhood has characterized the welfare states of the twentieth century, but the dream has undergone marked alterations. The picture of the child has changed; once an incompetent being with a right to state care and protection, the child is now seen as a competent fellow citizen. This altered understanding of childhood has led to fresh perceptions of parenthood, primarily a broadening of the role to include not just the mother but also the father. Parental competencies should be developed in a dialogue with science and its experts. Ambitions on behalf of parenthood and childhood could scarcely have been higher than at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

It is, however, important to stress that there are considerable differences between the lives of children across the European welfare community. The two decisive but interconnected differences consist of the degree to which the public sector takes the individual or the family as its point of departure and the degree to which childhood is seen as a phase of life in its own right or as a preparation for adult life. The former is the case in the north, while the latter applies to southern and mid-Europe.