World Politics

Research Article

Path Shifting of the Welfare State: Electoral Competition and the Expansion of Work-Family Policies in Western Europe

Kimberly J. Morgan

George Washington University, Email:


What explains the surprising growth of work-family policies in several West European countries? Much research on the welfare state emphasizes its institutional stickiness and immunity to major change. Yet, over the past two decades, governments in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have introduced important reforms to their welfare regimes, enacting paid leave schemes, expanded rights to part-time work, and greater investments in child care. A comparison of these countries reveals a similar sequence of political and policy change. Faced with growing electoral instability and the decline of core constituencies, party leaders sought to attract dealigning voter groups, such as women. This led them to introduce feminizing reforms of their party structures and adopt policies to support mothers' employment. In all three cases, women working within the parties played an important role in hatching or lobbying for these reforms. After comparing three countries that moved in a path-shifting direction, this article engages in a brief traveling exercise, examining whether a similar set of dynamics are lacking in two countries—Austria and Italy—that have moved more slowly in reforming these policies. Against the prevailing scholarly literature that emphasizes path dependence and slow-moving change, this article reveals the continued power of electoral politics in shaping redistributive policies.

Kimberly J. Morgan is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of Working Mothers and the Welfare State (2006), coauthor, with Andrea Louise Campbell, of The Delegated Welfare State (2011), and coeditor, with Christopher Howard and Daniel Béland, of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the U.S. Welfare State. She has also written numerous articles on the politics of social provision in Western Europe and the United States.


*  This article benefited from the helpful comments of seminar participants at Cornell University; Duke University; George Washington University's Comparative Politics workshop; the NordWel Summer School in Sigtuna, Sweden; unc-Chapel Hill; the Vigoni Talks at Loveno di Menaggio, Italy; and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; and specifically the insights of Karen Anderson, Giuliano Bonoli, Sandra Chapman-Osterkatz, Henry Farrell, Nathalie Morel, Moira Nelson, Bruno Palier, Joakim Palme, Barbara Vis, Erik Voeten, R. Kent Weaver, and three anonymous reviewers. I am grateful to Hans Anker for discussing the article's ideas with me, to Brian Karlsson and Amanda Spencer for their research assistance, and to gwu's Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies for its support of this research.