Hard choices. Preferences, trade-offs and reform opportunities in multidimensional welfare politics (2015-

Funding: Swiss National Science Foundation

Project leader: Prof. Dr. Silja Häusermann, Mitarbeiter: Dr. Denise Traber, Thomas Kurer

Under what conditions can welfare states be reformed? More specifically: how can established social policy programmes be adapted to changing demographic, economic and social constraints? These are the key questions in today’s welfare state politics, and they have consequently become the key questions in political science research on the welfare state. They are of paramount importance, because welfare reform has become a particularly difficult terrain for democratically elected politicians, as the needs for financial consolidation clash with popular resistance against cutbacks or higher taxes.
In this research project, we want to make use of the exceptional conjunction of theoretical advances in the relevant literature, methodological innovation in public opinion research and the unfolding of the most ambitious and encompassing pension reform in Switzerland in decades to provide answers to precisely these questions. With regard to the literature on welfare state reforms, one of the key insights of research over the past decade has been that welfare politics are multidimensional. This means that individuals are not just “in favor or against social policy”, but they hold specific preferences for different aspects of social policy. This multidimensionality opens the possibilities for trade-offs and compromises, as costs on one dimension can be counterbalanced by benefits on other dimensions. Hence, the key to successful welfare state reform is to engineer proposals that combine different policy dimensions in a way that fosters overall high levels of mass public support. One major difficulty - for researchers as well as policy-makers - is, however, that the relative importance that individuals or social groups attribute to these different dimensions is almost impossible to observe reliably in standard survey analysis. This is where recent methodological innovation in public opinion research comes in. Conjoint analysis is an experimental survey method that allows to measure whether changes in the composition of a reform package lead to sizeable shifts in support among the public as a whole, or among specific groups. To this effect, respondents compare different reform packages and indicate their degree of support to each of them. Through randomization of the composition of packages, we can identify how different components of a package affect support.
The current Swiss pension reform (“Altersvorsorge 2020”) is an ambitious attempt at reforming the entire system of old age income protection. It therefore provides the perfect opportunity to combine the insights in welfare state theory regarding multidimensionality with conjoint analysis. This is an opportunity we would not want to miss. For this reason, we propose to conduct a panel study that goes along with the political reform process. We intend to field a panel online survey at three time points. The longitudinal design allows us to evaluate the impact of changing debates in the media on the weight specific social and political groups (pensioners, party electorates etc.) attribute to specific aspects of the reform.