con la colaboración de
Jaime Villanueva

How do radical right parties shape family policy in Europe?

Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik

7 mins - 19 de Julio de 2022, 08:45

Radical right parties have not only made strong electoral gains across Europe, they have also entered government in a number of countries. While a lot of research has examined the drivers of the radical right's electoral success, we know only little about its policy impact – especially with respect to the welfare state. In an article recently published in West European Politics, I therefore examine how radical right parties in government shape family benefits, specifically spending on family allowances and childcare provision.

While both these benefits support families in raising children, they do so in very different ways. Family allowances are direct cash transfers to families with children. They typically replace some of the income that is lost as one parent – mothers more often than fathers – reduces working hours to care for the family's offspring. Allowances thus support families in handling parental duties, but – in and of themselves – they provide no care alternative outside the family.

By contrast, publicly provided or subsidized childcare helps families outsource some of the care work that children require. This frees up parents (especially mothers) to remain attached to the labor market, maintain their professional skills, and generate income. While family allowances thus make it financially easier to maintain the male-breadwinner model (fathers doing paid work outside the home and mothers doing unpaid work in the household), childcare provision makes it easier to have dual-earner households and thus a more gender-egalitarian division of labor between mothers and fathers.

Radical right ideology: between pro-natalism and gender traditionalism
When we view family allowances and childcare provision through the prism of radical right ideology, an interesting tension emerges: On the one hand, radical right parties view the family as the nucleus of society. Their doctrine dictates that the nation can only survive through the reproduction of the native population (however defined). Therefore, supporting families who raise children aligns well with the radical right's ideology.

However, the radical right is not only nativist, it – by and large – also adheres to traditional gender norms as enshrined in the male-breadwinner model. Policies that have the potential to make gender roles more egalitarian thus do not fit the radical right’s core tenets well.

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Assuming that radical right parties are, to some extent, led by their core ideological commitments when in government, we can therefore hypothesize that these parties will work towards expanding financial support for families such as family allowances. Yet, by the same logic, we should expect them to be reluctant to increase spending on childcare.

A complication for the radical right: immigrants as benefit recipients
The past decades have been periods of net immigration in many European societies. The average member state of the erstwhile EU-28 has seen its foreign-born population more than double between 1990 and 2019. On average, immigrants are younger and have higher fertility rates than the native population. Hence, an increasing share of family benefits goes to immigrant families.

This development changes the political calculation for the radical right. As the migrant stock in a country increases, we should expect radical right parties to become less enthusiastic about providing generous cash transfers to families. After all, more and more beneficiaries will be members of the non-native outgroup that the radical right typically considers less deserving of welfare state support.

By contrast, the provision of childcare may become less anathema to radical right parties as the foreign-born population increases. This is because they may view early childhood education as a means to achieve cultural and linguistic assimilation – a role that educational institutions have often played in the past.

This reasoning leads us to modified expectations: As immigrant populations increase, the radical right's hypothesized tendencies to promote cash benefits while blocking childcare expansion should both weaken.

What does the empirical analysis tell us?

To examine whether these expectations bear out empirically, I use OECD data that captures spending on family allowances and childcare as a proportion of a country's GDP. The data cover 26 European countries between 1980 and 2015, with some data points missing, especially for the 1980s.

On average, spending on family allowances has mostly remained flat over the period of observation. Childcare expenditures, however, has increased markedly. To illustrate the change that has happened, consider the fact that, in 2000, spending on family allowances was 80 percent higher than spending on childcare in the average country in the sample (0.87 vs. 0.49 percent of GDP). By 2014, this gap had almost disappeared (0.82 vs. 0.76 percent). Interestingly, this is a period where the presence of radical right parties in government has also increased – suggesting that there are powerful macro-trends that work against the radical right’s skepticism of generous childcare benefits.

To test the hypotheses outlined above, I specify statistical models that examine the effect of radical right government participation (or supporting roles for minority cabinets as common in Scandinavia) on the two types of expenditures, while also controlling for a range of other factors that could drive spending in those areas (e.g. union density, female political representation, the share of the population under 15, unemployment, GDP growth, etc.).

The baseline models show that radical right governance has only weak effects on family-related spending. The impact on family allowances is not statistically distinguishable from zero. The effect on childcare expenditures is negative, as expected, but quite noisy (i.e. it comes with a lot of uncertainty). On average, radical right participation in government decreases spending on childcare by 0.028 percentage points of GDP per year. There is thus some support for the conjecture that the radical right's anti-egalitarian views on gender feed through to the policy-making stage.

When examining how radical right governance plays out at different levels of foreign-born residents, the analysis shows that there is a positive effect on family allowance expenditures when the migrant stock is very low (lower than five percent). At higher proportions the effect is, again, indistinguishable from zero. The radical right’s impact on childcare spending does not vary depending on the size of the foreign-born population.

In a last analytical step, I examine not just the two different spending categories, but also the gap between them, simply taking family-allowance spending minus childcare spending as the outcome of interest. The idea behind this modification is that the two spending categories may not be independent of each other, but budget-constrained politicians who want to change the status quo may simply shift money from one to the other. The analysis supports this idea: Radical right governance is associated with a larger gap between family-allowance and childcare spending. Also, this effect is larger when the foreign-born population is small, and disappears at higher levels of the migrant stock.

What do we learn?

Radical right parties have left their mark on European politics during the past decades. As I show in the paper discussed here, when entering government, they also have an impact on policy – albeit a limited one in the policy area under study. From a policy economy perspective, the most interesting take-away is that radical right parties have no uniform impact on the size and generosity of the welfare state. Rather, their specific ideology may lead them to support generous benefits in some areas, but dictate retrenchment in others. More than anything else, this may depend on how much natives vs. non-natives benefits stand to benefit from a social program.
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