Ambitious Plans, modest Results

By the end of the 19th century, there was intense public debate about the introduction of public social insurance. The plans were ambitious, but faced political opposition. Thus, the social security system remained fragmented and strongly characterized by private solutions until the Second World War.

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The Swiss welfare state began to take shape between 1890 and 1947. The creation of a constitutional basis for an accident and health insurance in 1890 represented a first step towards modern social policy. But in 1900, voters rejected a bill for a health and accident insurance act. It was only with considerable delay that politicians were able to save parts of the bill. Eleven years later, a much more streamlined bill was passed in a next referendum; the bill only prescribed mandatory accident insurance. This was to become a familiar pattern in the establishment of social security leading up to the Second World War. The period seems like a protracted phase of experimentation distinguished by gradual, minimalistic and sometimes unsuccessful attempts at reform. Lasting impetus even failed to take hold after the First World War and the general national strike of 1918, which triggered social activism in the short term. The system of direct democracy, plebiscites as well as political negotiations in the run up to referenda all had an impeding effect. This also explains how the first moderate bill for old age and survivors’ insurance failed to secure a majority in 1931. It was only the experiences of the Second World War that enabled the emergence of new momentum, ultimately culminating in the introduction of the AHV (old age and survivors’ insurance) in 1947.

This development resulted in social security in Switzerland remaining a hybrid and heterogeneous system until well after the Second World War. Not only the state (federation, cantons and municipalities) played an important role, but many private stakeholders too: commercial insurance companies as well as charitable and non-profit organisations for example. The major burden borne by public welfare continued to be communal poor relief, which, however, developed new strategies for dealing with social plight after the turn of the century.

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Studer Brigitte (2012), Ökonomien der sozialen Sicherheit, in P. Halbeisen, M. Müller, B. Veyrasset (ed.), Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Schweiz im 19. Jahrhundert, 923–974, Basel; Degen Bernard (2006), Entstehung und Entwicklung des schweizerischen Sozialstaates, Studien und Quellen, 31, 17–48.