Different levels of policy change: A comparison between the public discussion on social security in Sweden and in Finland

Christian Kroll, Helena Blomberg


The deep economic recession that hit Sweden and Finland at the beginning of the 90s, and the fall in public revenues and rapidly growing public debts that followed on it, triggered a development of cutbacks and restructuring measures which has resulted in a scientific debate over what this has meant for these countries’ systems of social policy, traditionally resting on the Nordic welfare state paradigm. In this connection, questions of to what extent changes made can be ascribed mainly to the economic constraints posed by the recession at all, or rather, to other more long-term societal trends or phenomena, including globalisation, European integration and/or ideational or ideological shifts among influential (elite) groups, have often been touched upon. Applying an ideas-centred approach, this paper attempts to contribute to the knowledge on the reasoning of influential elite societal groups in social policy issues before, during and after the 90’s recession, by empirically analysing their statements on social security made in the press. A distinction is made between three different levels of proposed policy changes, reaching from minor alterations of single programs to changes of the policy paradigm. Results show that the 1990s did not only mean the emergence of suggestions for minor cutbacks in and alterations of prevailing programmes. The share of suggestions implying de facto a (further) departure from the basic features of the social security system also showed that the model was under continuous pressure throughout the 90s. However, many of the changes suggested were not justified by any clear references to a policy paradigm in either country (or not justified at all). Instead, references to “purely” structural justifications did become more common over time. In this respect, as regards social security, our results cannot confirm the fairly popular notion among many researchers of a clearly ideological attack on the welfare state. However, it remains uncertain whether and to what extent the increased proportion of references to “structural realities” in the 90s should be interpreted as an indication of a change in the idea of what the welfare state is and what the goals behind it are. Results further show that the patterns of the discussion in the two countries studied bore a remarkable resemblance at a general level, whereas there are indications of differences in the driving forces behind suggestions for similar reforms in these two countries.

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