In a time when talk of happiness and subjective well-being is all around, it is good to remind ourselves that there is another way of conceiving of human well-being. I make a strong case for the concept of welfare in this context. This concept’s original and enduring meanings lie in the distribution of material resources and the institutions and practices that govern access to resources and responses to inequalities.
As it has developed, welfare has become a concept attuned also to trajectories over time, inquiring of how people fare as their lives unfold. The term welfare has to some extent been corrupted – its dominant public register in the US, for instance, has come to be the behaviours of those receiving public benefits which have been interpreted usually in a negative fashion. This is a particular reading that robs the concept of its universal application. For, as an idea, welfare taps into the nature of social divisions and opposing philosophical and political positions on how to address fundamental issues about the good society.
One can see why concepts like happiness and well-being appeal. They have a ready reference to individuality and subjectivity on the one hand and agency and self-fulfilment on the other. All of these are central references in a time when such a vacuous notion as the ‘big society’ is mooted and even seriously entertained in some quarters. Welfare appears too passive in a context in which people are supposed to be self provisioning and too oriented to subsistence and minimum standards for those who prefer to see the world as a universe unbounded in riches and opportunities open to us all.
None of the new concepts is superior to welfare in describing the human condition and setting up an ideal to which we should aspire. I would argue that happiness and well-being are economically and politically shallow – they are too focused on the mind-sets and emotions of individuals and conceive of social and economic factors mainly as background conditions affecting individual functioning. Society becomes little more than the ‘atmosphere’. Moreover, there is no moral register in happiness – fairness and justice have no place in it and the concept has no terms to deal with unfairness or injustice in underlying conditions which lead to inequalities in the distribution of, among other things, happiness or chances therefor.
Welfare provides elements of the big picture that are missing from other concepts and approaches. In particular, it has a clear view of social progress which extends way beyond how happy individuals feel or a happy society. Moreover, welfare’s strong focus on objective conditions is to be underlined in a period when social structural factors are under-emphasised in policy, theory and research but count hugely in people’s everyday lives. We should note, with some irony, that as the conditions of people’s lives deteriorate, public discourse is being directed more and more to their mind-sets, emotions and feelings.
Let’s get serious and bring discussions of welfare back to the table I say.
Mary Daly, author of Welfare, is Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast.