Helge Staff and Georg Wenzelburger have published a new article in the Journal of Public Policy. They focus on the penal-welfare nexus, namely the idea that cutbacks in welfare state policy are accompanied by expansion of penal policy. The article examines, more specifically, how political parties and electoral competition affect the relationship between these policies.
Staff and Wenzelburger assume that both policies depend on party ideology and government participation, and differentiate – on the left hand side of the ideological spectrum – between social democrats that follow a reform oriented “third-way” -program and more traditional social democratic parties. For their research, they selected four different European countries (Britain, Denmark, France, and Germany), which they analyzed over a period of 24 years. In each of the countries, the authors coded legislative changes in penal and welfare policies. A multiple regression analysis, executed as ordinal logistic and OLS regression, allows to test the effects of the independent variables (e.g. growth, homicide, or cabinet seats) on legislative change – both for penal and welfare state policy. To see whether there is a penal-welfare nexus, they also include a time-lag variable that indicates whether welfare state change affects penal policy.
In their study, Staff and Wenzelburger find that government participation of conservative parties is associated with welfare state cutbacks, while conversely social democratic governments have a higher chance of expanding the welfare state. Regarding penal legislation, they point out that social democrats as well as conservatives are more repressive. For market-liberal, green, but especially left-liberal parties the opposite is true. One interesting fact is that left liberal parties are the best at slowing harsh penal policies.
Concerning the penal-welfare nexus, there is no evidence of a direct effect – namely that penal policies change in direct relation to welfare state change. However, using a model with interaction effects, Staff and Wenzelburger show that this is different for third way social democratic governments. In these cases, welfare state cutbacks are indeed followed by more repressive penal legislation (see the line with filled circles in the graph above). Based on this evidence, the authors conclude that the penal-welfare nexus is not a universal pattern, but can indeed be observed for third-way social democratic governments, such as the Blair government in Britain or the Schröder governments in Germany. These finding mesh well with qualitative evidence from comparative case studies (as published by the authors in the EJPR in 2017).