Anke Hassel: Surveying the world of work and welfare

The Hertie School Professor of Public Policy researches the sometimes unexpected drivers of government social policies. 

The social scientist Anke Hassel has spent time with slaughterhouse migrant workers researching the effects of EU labour policy, delved into the motives for Germany’s stark 1990s welfare reform, explored links between pension privatisation and the financial services industries and between the digitalisation of work and the rise of tech companies. But the Hertie School Professor of Public Policy’s most recent book, co-edited with Bruno Palier of Sciences Po, zooms out from the ground-level policy topics to take on the bigger question of why capitalist welfare states differ from each other.

Published in January 2021 by Oxford University Press, Growth and Welfare in Advanced Capitalist Economies draws a grand arc linking countries’ policy choices to capitalism, welfare and economic growth. It is a collection of articles by prominent scholars on how governments have responded to economic challenges since the 1990s. The book looks at how different welfare policies promote growth – things like tax incentives aimed at boosting private pension savings, or skills development designed to support employment in certain industries.

“Countries specialise in different economic activities. And welfare states develop accordingly,” Hassel says. “In the UK, with its important financial services industries, you had Margaret Thatcher's government privatising pensions and social housing, for a sort of asset-based social policy. In the Nordic countries, with their very high-functioning welfare states, we have also seen housing market liberalisation and pension privatisation – but with limits on the profits pension plans can take, so returns for workers are relatively high.”

“There’s a long history of debate on why countries are so different in terms of their welfare systems and economies, and we hope to move this forward,” Hassel says.

The new book evolves concepts from the influential 2001 Varieties of Capitalism, edited by Peter A. Hall and David Soskice – the eponym for a course on capitalist political economies Hassel has taught to Master of Public Policy and Executive Master of Public Administration students for many years. In spring 2021, she’s teaching it with her co-editor Bruno Palier of Sciences Po through the eight-member European University initiative, CIVICA.

“It’s a lot of fun, both for us and for students from the two institutions, to be together in the same classroom – online, of course – and to experience the different perspectives and teaching styles,” Hassel says.

Hassel came to the Hertie School in 2005, right after its founding, and brings to the classroom a wealth of experience from field research carried out on factory floors and in the halls of government. In between, she was Academic Director of the Institute of Economic and Social Research at the German trade union-affiliated Hans-Böckler-Foundation, and has held various institutional responsibilities at the Hertie School, from PhD Director to member of the employee works council.

Hassel studied at the London School of Economics and did her PhD in Sociology at Ruhr University in Bochum while also working at the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, where she researched her dissertation on trade union membership in Germany and the UK.

From trade unions to teaching

The daughter of a locomotive driver and union organizer, Hassel’s interest in trade unions goes back to her youth in a small town near Cologne. “I’m from a working class background, and I guess that made me interested in the world of work – how it’s structured, how capitalism works.,” Hassel says.  “I’m the first in my family to go to university. Going to the LSE in London was an eye-opening experience for me.”

After her PhD, Hassel had a VW Foundation grant that landed her at the German Ministry of Economics and Social Affairs. It was the late 1990s, just as social democrat Gerhard Schröder began his Chancellorship – a time of low growth and high unemployment in Germany, whose long-praised mix of capitalism, good labour relations and social welfare protections seemed to be coming undone.

“My plan was to study – basically – why there is so much resistance to change in Germany despite mounting problems. Then everything started to change – and I was in the Minister’s office,” says Hassel. The government embarked on a massive welfare reform, known as Hartz IV, cutting benefits and creating incentives to get people into the job market. “Then my research question became: why are they doing this? Because from my theoretical interpretation, they shouldn't have been. To this day, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has suffered. They were punished in the polls and have never recovered.”

When Hassel came to the Hertie School, she pursued this question for a subsequent book, Der Fall Hartz IV, published in 2010. She interviewed people from the Schröder administration and dug through archives. “In fact, we found the origins of the reform proposal. It came from the Finance Ministry and had little to do with Labour and Social Affairs,” Hassel says. “It originated in a sub-committee on reforming local finances. The true story of the Hartz reforms is a story about German fiscal federalism,” which restricted the government’s funding of local authorities that were highly indebted at the time. “The only way to bail out local authorities was to scale back social assistance.”

Circling back to her latest work on capitalism, welfare states and growth, Hassel notes that the German government could have chosen a path more like Europe’s Nordic countries – rather than pushing the cost of reforms onto society’s neediest. “The government took many definitional choices about who is unemployed, who is disabled, who is able to work and most of the time it decided in ways that punished those affected. These decisions saved the government a lot of money, but led to a large number of working poor.”

These days, Hassel’s research focus is shifting to the future of work. Her project “Governing Work in the Digital Age” explores the effects artificial intelligence and automation are already having on jobs. She also sits on the German government’s Hightech-Forum, an advisory board that looks at how to best harness opportunities offered by new technologies. Hassel chairs the social innovation group in the Forum exploring new models for approaching various social issues.

Her next book, written with Hertie School Professor of Public Administration and Public Policy Kai Wegrich, is a nuts-and-bolts manual on “How to do Public Policy.” It’s based on a class they have taught for a number of years and will be published by Oxford University Press later this year.

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Views expressed by the author/interviewee may not necessarily reflect the views and values of the Hertie School.