Organisation of Social Welfare

In contrast to social insurance, public social welfare was regulated by cantons and implemented largely by municipalities. Hence, there are differences in the organization and execution of social welfare.

Social welfare has a long history. It emerged from poor relief, a welfare institution that had already been around for over a century. The cantons began institutionalizing state poor relief as ‘welfare’ at the end of the 19th century, while private forms of welfare assistance persisted. The former was displaced by the notion of ‘social welfare’ in the second half of the 20th century. In contrast to social insurance, social welfare today is funded by the taxpayer and is based on means tests of the social welfare recipient. Social welfare is still generally considered to be the ‘last safety net’ provided by the welfare state.

Private and Public Welfare in the 19th Century

During the 19th century, cantons standardized public poor relief by passing welfare laws. Essentially though, they remained unchanged: the needy were dependent on both private charity as well as public welfare from the municipality. Only poor people with no debts belonging to the local community were entitled to support. Foreign nationals were excluded from public welfare since they did not hold municipal citizenship. In the 19th century, private and public welfare were funded primarily by donations, rather than taxes. The Confederation contributed ten per cent of revenues from its monopoly on alcohol for social welfare.

Once internal migration of labor intensified with industrialisation, the municipalities’ duty to provide support became a growing cause for concern. From the mid-19th century, some cantons therefore began to switch from welfare on the basis of local citizenship to residential welfare, with the canton of Bern leading the way in 1857. Foster homes and institutions were also set up for orphans, alcoholics, the destitute, youths and adults on private or public initiative during the 19th century.

The Elberfeld system (named after a former German textile town which is now a city district of Wuppertal) was one way to reform welfare in the 19thcentury. The innovation in this system was to create district offices and thereby decentralize what had been a centrally administered system of poor relief. These offices were given the task of assigning volunteer caregivers from the middle-classes to help needy families out. Both the care provided, and the financial support given to the needy was meant as temporary help: those in need should learn how to help themselves. The Elberfeld system was introduced in many Swiss and European towns and reached its highpoint in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies – after this date social assistance was again centralized and professionalized. 

The Organization of Social Welfare since the 20th Century

Social welfare in the modern sense emerged from the reform and expansion of cantonal welfare laws after the Second World War. While in some cantons, social welfare is managed on a cantonal or regional level, the municipalities remain largely are responsible for it. Social welfare authorities are composed of a decision-making committee (welfare authority) and an executing administrative body (social administration). The executive authorities are more or less professionalized depending on the size of the municipality, the political majority and socio-economic situation. The municipal council is authorized to decide and execute the programme in smaller villages, forming a joint welfare authority and social administration. The larger a municipality, the more likely is the execution of social welfare by the municipal administration and decisions by an elected or appointed welfare authority. In larger cities, social administration is made up of social offices and social services.

Social welfare is funded by municipal and sometimes cantonal taxes. The Conference of Cantonal Welfare Directors and the guidelines set by the Swiss Conference of Social Welfare Organisations (SKOS) ensure the coordination and partial harmonization of how social welfare is implemented.

Alongside public social welfare, there are also a number of important private organisations today that help and support the needy. These include smaller relief organisations (associations and foundations), larger welfare organisations (‘Pro’ organisations, the workers’ welfare society SAH, Mountain aid, Winter aid, Swiss Solidarity and the Swiss Red Cross) as well as denominational organisations (Caritas, HEKS, Fastenopfer, Brot für Alle, congregations and deaconesses).

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Tabin Jean-Pierre et al. (2010), Temps d’assistance. L’assistance publique en Suisse romande de la fin du XIXe siècle à nos jours, Lausanne; Schnegg Brigitte, Matter Sonja (2010), Von der Unterstützung der «würdigen» Armen zum Recht auf Existenzsicherung. Die Ausgestaltung der Schweizer Sozialhilfe im 20. Jahrhundert, in C. Kehrli (ed.), Schwerpunkt. Armut verhindern, Luzern, S. 129-142; Kehrli Christin; Knöpfel Carlo (2006): Handbuch Armut in der Schweiz. Luzern.