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The Welfare State, Globalization and Internal Sociopolitical Dynamics: The Case of North America

L’État providence, mondialisation et dynamique sociopolitique interne : le cas de l’Amérique du Nord
Ilán Bizberg
p. 187-216


Cet article analyse la transformation du système de protection sociale dans les trois pays de l’Amérique du Nord sous la mondialisation et l’ALÉNA (Accord de libre-échange nord-américain). Contrairement à ce qui a été prévu, il n’y a pas eu de processus unique d’homogénéisation de l’économique et des configurations de sécurité sociale des trois pays sur le modèle de ce qui existe aux États-Unis. Bien que l’on puisse noter quelques éléments d’homogénéisation, de nombreuses différences persistent. L’explication repose essentiellement sur le fait que la mondialisation n’est pas une force impersonnelle qui s’impose aux pays, mais un arrangement socio-économique que des acteurs réels, externes comme internes, essaient de faire respecter. La plupart des études expliquent les causes internes du statu quo des systèmes de protection sociale par leur dépendance aux voies institutionnelles. Cet article se concentre non seulement sur des institutions, mais aussi sur les façons dont les acteurs engagent des changements ou leur résistent.

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1In this article I discuss the transformation of the social protection system in the three countries of North America. It is a very instructive case, because, although the three countries that constitute the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are very different in terms of the weight of their economies and the characteristics of their welfare regime, the fact that they are so integrated economically makes them a perfect laboratory to measure the effects of external as well as internal causes on social protection systems.

2Because, for both Canada and Mexico, trade with the United States represents more than 80% of the total of their external trade, globalization means the relationship with the largest economy of the world, anchored since 1994 in an international treaty. This means that all three countries are under the same pressure from capital and share a similar economic ideology. Nonetheless, because both Canada and Mexico are smaller and weaker and are dominated by the economy of the United States, a liberal market capitalism (Boyer, 2002–2003; Hall and Soskice, 2001), we would expect that the weight of the latter’s economy would dominate that of its neighbors and impose upon them the liberal economic patterns and its residual social protection system. In fact, that is what many analysts predicted would happen with the signing of NAFTA: a homogenization of the economic and the social security configurations of the three countries to the ones existing in the United States.

3This is especially true because pressures for retrenchment come from three different sources relating to globalization: 1. The free movement of goods puts pressure on local economies to produce with similar levels of costs than those of imported merchandises; 2. The free circulation of capital enables enterprises to implement a global productive, commercial and financial strategy that can select the best conditions for its purposes; and 3. Government elites use globalization as a programmatic instrument in order to retrench the welfare state in its endeavor to gain autonomy for the state from the social actors with which it had built a fordist (or segmented-fordist) alliance (Théret, 2001).

4Nevertheless, although there have been some homogenizing tendencies, many differences persist. The explanation is, in the first place, that globalization is not an impersonal force that imposes itself on countries, but a socioeconomic arrangement that real actors, both external (multinationals, international economic institutions) and internal (political actors, national enterprises, national elites) try to enforce. It is not only applied materially but also supported ideologically, through the imposition of conceptual structures by functionaries, academics, and media professionals. It also encounters resistances from existing institutional inertias and from social and political actors: political parties, trade unions, social movements, and from provincial and local governments, more so as the three countries are federations. The ideas that accompany globalization are also disputed ideologically by critical experts. In short, globalization embeds itself in an institutional and sociopolitical context.

5The literature on social protection systems mentions that radical changes in these systems are not common either because they confront strong opposition of the “stakeholders,” when they are associated in strong social organizations (labor, functionaries, middle classes) or when the changes are headed to modify a very comprehensive policy such as health in a universal health system or a pension system that affects a large proportion of the population, which would either risk triggering a large protest movement or endanger the next election (Banting and Myles, 2013; Pierson, 1996). This is why the literature on path dependence affirms that modifications of the social protection systems usually occur as policy drifts: both as small modifications of the present state of affairs that add up to a retrenchment, or non-adaptations in face of changing socioeconomic conditions that sometimes add up to a cutback (Banting and Myles, 2013; Hacker, 2005). Most studies analyze the internal causes of maintaining the statu quo of a welfare system through path dependence, stating that in certain cases governments do not dare to modify popular social policy measures for political reasons, or because vested interest are too strong (Pierson, 1996). Other studies defend the idea that retrenchment does not only happen by direct offensives, formal policy change, against welfare policies, but through “everyday forms of retrenchment: drift, conversion and layering,” which proceed by discreet institutional modifications or non-adaptation of old policies to new social contexts (Hacker, 2005).

6Nevertheless, if one takes into account that in some situations, such as those that existed in Chile under the government of Pinochet, or in Mexico under the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) regime, radical changes did occur in pension reforms, and in the case of Chile also in the health system, one has to admit that radical changes can occur. One can also argue that, in many occasions, what looks like “everyday forms of retrenchment” do not occur because there is active resistance to the transformation of the social protection system. One is tempted to say that there is a tendency to generalize from the situation that occurred in the United States to the rest of the world, when, if we look at Mexico and Canada, we can see that these processes are more diversified.

7In fact, this is what Crouch and Keune affirm in an important book on the neo-institutionalist perspective when they say that “neo-institutional theory is generally better equipped to deal with continuity and stability than with discontinuity and change. Institutional configurations are often presented as a straightjacket from which endogenous actors cannot escape and which can only be seriously modified through external shocks. . . . However, from time to time, radical, rather rapid change is introduced by endogenous actors.” These authors adopt an actor-centered institutionalism, not far from what we intend in this article (Crouch and Keune, 2005: 83). Even an author as Hacker, who perfectly inserts himself in the path-dependent perspective, has to admit that, “although, as Pierson argues, declining unionization does not necessarily imperil public programs that enjoy strong popular support, it is difficult to deny that it has weakened the leverage of those who wish to reorient social policy toward new risks, or that it has strengthened the political standing of employers” (Crouch and Keune, 2005: 54). In this manner, social actors appear surreptitiously in their weakness, to allow for change, even radical change, or expressly, as employers, financiers and multinational companies, which together with the Mexican State have imposed radical changes to pensions and labor relations.

8This article tries to understand the dialectic between the external and the internal forces and actors. The regulation school considers that institutions are only more or less temporary and fragile agreements in a conflictual relation between social actors (Amable, 2005; Boyer and Saillard, 2002; Théret, 2000). The dynamics between economic and sociopolitical actors (enterprises, unions, the State, states and provinces in a federalist system) decode international pressures and ideas to the national context. Their conflictual relation constructs different institutions, among them a system of social protection that is an interaction between the different dimensions of this system. The social protection system (SPS) is an interplay between the economic, political and domestic dimensions, defined in this social relation (Théret, 2011).

9In this article I do not have enough space to discuss all these matters, although I will mention them when it is pertinent. I will concentrate on the way in which the social protection systems have changed in these three countries and will only make brief comments regarding the actors pursuing these changes and those that have resisted them.

Similarities and Differences in the Welfare Systems in North America before the 1990s

10If, as we said before, not all three countries’ SPSs followed the same course, it is also true that the social protection subsystems in each country change in different and sometimes contradictory manners. More paradoxically, in some cases, the subsystems in a single country evolve in opposite directions. In the United States and Canada, pensions have been maintained practically untouched while assistance to the poor has been retrenched, and health in the United States has been extended. In Mexico, pensions were privatized while assistance to the poor was greatly expanded and health insurance was at least formally universalized, although with a limited catalogue of diseases included.

11It is useful to start out with the central concept of de-commodification, developed by Esping-Andersen (1990) in his classic book The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. This concept sets out from the idea that in order to compare different welfare regimes one has to go beyond the amounts of social spending, because what is important is the manner in which each country uses the resources. It is possible for one country to spend more than another although it delivers less generous and extensive social benefits: a classic example is that of health expenditure in the United States, which is higher than that of Canada and France, although it is less universal and effective as around 15% of the population was not covered before ObamaCare. Esping-Andersen coined the concept of de-commodification to define the level to which a social protection system ensures that individuals are less dependent on the market. In this respect, he was following Polanyi (1944), by saying that society defends itself from the market by building social protection. Although the general idea is that social protection systems seek, in principle, to de-commodify social life to different degrees, Esping-Andersen argues that, in fact, some of these systems do exactly the contrary.

12The residual liberal welfare system (such as the one that exists in the United States) is not de-commodifying; on the contrary, it actually strengthens the market because it only aids people who fail to survive in a market economy: the public social protection system only covers the (deserving) poor or people who do not have insurance or resources. Poor people in this situation do not really have rights, as they must prove that they need to be helped, and they must thus be in a situation of total dependency to deserve charity. This means that if they want to overcome their dependency they have to integrate the labor market. The Bismarckian model (German and French), based on work-related categories that differentiate the rights of workers depending on their contributions to pension and health funds managed by both unions and employers, is also not de-commodifying. Although this type of welfare state certainly allocates rights and is less subject to dependency and charity, it also rests heavily on the market, because the benefits are defined by the economic sector and type of job of each individual worker. A third regime, the Beveridgean, is universal and homogeneous, in that it depends on citizenship rather than on a position in the labor market, and thus allocates the same rights and protection to all the population. It is not de-commodifying as it only assures a basic level of benefits for all, the rank of the lower working classes, like in the British case, and drives individuals to aspire to a higher level through a better job. This regime becomes de-commodifying when it develops into a social democratic one such as the one that exist in the Scandinavian countries, where both retirement and health benefits are universal and dependent on citizenship, but where the social protection system has been upgraded to the level of the middle classes (Esping-Andersen, 1990).

13None of the three countries in North America was ever significantly de-commodifying. While the social protection system of the United States is the archetype of a liberal residual system and the system of Canada has also been considered liberal by most analysts, there are important differences between the two of them. Until the 1990s, the Canadian social protection system was much more egalitarian than the other liberal systems. In fact, the Canadian social security system has been considered as a hybrid between the liberal type and the European. “First of all, like the American system, it is decentralized, being conceived and administered by the provinces. . . . Canada is fairly close to the United States before taxes and transfers, but its policies are more redistributive” (Bouchard, Labrie and Noël, 1996, cited by Morel, 2002: 91 and 17). Nonetheless, one has to take into consideration that, while the United States is a centralized federation, Canada is a decentralized one (Théret 2002). There are many differences between the provinces and while Quebec fits better the idea of hybridization, other provinces like Alberta and Ontario are more similar to the United States (Morel, 2002: 91–97).

14The main difference between the two systems resides in their health systems. Canada has a totally de-commodifying health system, in fact a social democratic one. The Canadian health regime is a unified, universal, sole payer public insurance system that “. . . guarantees access to a non-categorical, non-income-tested, not-for-profit publicly accountable insurance plan that provides first-dollar coverage for all listed services when prescribed by a plan-recognized practitioner” (Boychuk, 2012: 8). In contrast, the United States’ health system hovers around the private health plans for the population between 25 and 65 years old. The poor and the elderly (over 65) are covered by Medicaid and Medicare, respectively.

15There also were significant differences in the assistance systems. In general, assistance to the poor in the United States can be best defined as a dependency and workfare model, based on the idea that the poor are in this condition because of a “personal” fault that society has to help to remedy. On the contrary, the European model puts emphasis on insertion, on a “social” fault and debt; based on the idea that society has not been able to insert the individual in a working society and has thus the obligation to remedy this situation. In the United States, the idea is to correct dependency of an individual upon society, and the solution is to push him to enter the labor market and become independent again. In the case of the French model the responsibility is not individual but social. The contrast is between dependency and charity and integration as a societal obligation and an individual right. (Morel, 2002: 7–12). “Because of its integrated nature, the configuration of Canada’s social assistance system is more akin to the French RMI than to the American AFDC-TANF. . . . In Quebec, the ‘subject-citizen’ of social assistance has a dual representation: the image of the poor person in society is constructed from the two registers of dependency and exclusion, with the first predominating. In this regard, the Quebec model of reciprocity is a case midway between the workfare and insertion models” (ibid.: 91–92).

16The only Canadian subsystem that is almost equivalent to that which exists in the United States relates to pensions: in both countries it is fundamentally based on private capitalization. Nevertheless, even in this case, there are still important differences, because, while 90.5% of the population above legal retirement age is covered in Canada, only 74% is covered in the United States, even if the active contributors to a pension scheme in these two countries is quite the same: around 72% (ILO, 2010).

  • 1 I say formally because due to a series of deficiencies and shortages of the system, patients have (...)

17While Mexico has had a health system that is mainly public, in fact statist, because not only the State is formally1 the sole payer of the public health sector, but it is also the main provider. Nonetheless, it is highly segmented, as four subsystems coexist. Three are state-based: one for government employees, another for private formal workers, and a last one for the rest of the population, which until the beginning of the year 2000 only served as last resort—basically emergencies or serious diseases. There is, finally, a very restricted private sector of private insurances and private hospitals, doctors and clinics.

  • 2 Nowadays, there is a very restrictive one, limited to the City of Mexico.

18On the other hand, the contributive “pay-as-you-go” pension system covered only around 38% of the economic active population (basically the formal workers), and a mere 19.2% of the population above legal retirement age (ILO, 2010). In addition, there is no unemployment insurance.2 Until the 1980s, the sole assistance programs oriented towards the poor were focused on marginal populations (in its majority the indigenous that lived in very isolated regions), subsidies for poor peasants and “tortilla” and milk distribution to poor urban population. Since the 1990s, the impulse of neoliberal conceptions of human capital and social investment have resulted in the creation and expansion of the conditional cash transfer programs (Valencia Lomelí, 2008).

Retrenchment, Modifications, and Expansion since the 1990s

19Although, in the case of Mexico, we have passed from a pay-as-you-go pension system to a total capitalization system and, in both Canada and the United States, we have seen the retrenchment of the programs oriented towards the poor, in both Mexico and Quebec, we have seen the contrary process, an expansion of the programs oriented to the poor. On the other hand, many programs have been maintained more or less as they were: the Canadian health system, and the American and Canadian pension systems. We have also seen the expansion of the health program in the United States and in Mexico, and of the work and family policies in Quebec (Noël, 2013).

20Transformations of social policies are mediated by national, federal and local institutions, social and political actors and the public opinions. The subsystems that have suffered the most radical transformations have done so due to the weakness of the actors and/or the organizations that represent and defend them, or by the fact that these programs affect a particular and restricted sector of society. An example of the first case is the poor in the United States and Canada. An example of the second is the corporatist labor and government employees sector in Mexico.

21The systems that have been preserved have either been too universal to be touched, as Pierson says, or the costs of doing so have been too high, either socially (they may generate protests) or electorally: this is the case of health and pensions in Canada and of social security in the United States. The reason might also have been a strong social coalition (workers, social movements), or a sociopolitical coalition (left or liberal—in the North American sense) that defended them; or, in the case of federalism, especially in Canada, a territorial coalition or a strong province that rejected the changes.

22Finally, expansion has basically occurred in the traditional way that Esping-Andersen, among others, has explained: thanks to the labor movement, social movements, a province, a political party that defends and exerts pressure in favor of a certain policy due to ideological or practical reasons.

23Whereas the forces that expanded the welfare state are conservative states seeking to prevent labor from organizing autonomously or trying to coalesce different social forces under its hold, or leftist governments responding to the demands of labor or other popular alliances, Pierson rightly emphasizes that in some cases retrenchment follows a different path. In certain circumstances, retrenchment is prevented by the support of ample (but diffuse) social sectors that benefit from them and make it difficult for governments to proceed to modifications without risking of loosing the next election (Pierson, 1996). Pierson focuses on how the development of social security system gives support to those who endeavor in it, while retrenchment imposes losses on concentrated groups of electors, something that goes contrary to politicians’ capacity to be re-elected and that in many cases stops the process (ibid.).

24Nonetheless, the possibility of undertaking retrenchment (or expansion, as in the case of Quebec) does not merely depend on the strategic calculations of the governing elites. It also depends on the strength or weakness and capacity of mobilization of those sectors that profit most from it and that were central in their expansion: the labor movement and, in federal State configurations such as the three countries of North America, the state (United States and Mexico) or provincial (Canada) governments. Resistance also arises from the institutions themselves: both from the groups of functionaries, that defend a certain conception of the role of their institutions and of the State, and from the bureaucratic rules and practices of these institutions themselves; both of which one could consider as an institutional memory and culture that resists change.

25Esping-Andersen stresses a sort of rule according to which it is not the national social protection systems (NSPS) that are more generous and more costly that suffer the most profound transformations (something that actually contradicts the idea that the reforms are most necessary when the weight of social policies are higher) but, on the contrary, it is in the countries where the system is less developed and, especially, where the social sectors that benefit from it are smaller, that the most radical transformations have taken place. This implies that, in the situations where both the institutions are less consolidated and where the welfare state is less comprehensive and/or more fragmented, the transformations due to globalization are bound to be more radical, as is the case in Mexico with pensions, as we mentioned above.

26For example, the Mexican privatization of the pension system was achieved through both the fact that pensions only profited a small portion of the Mexican population and thus did not become a social or political issue, and the fact that the stakeholders, the trade unions, had been weakened politically and were under the control of the government and thus incapable of mobilizing their members and followers. On the other hand, the intent to modify the Canadian social security system (pensions) was met with a strong opposition from Quebec and other provinces (Béland and Myles, 2008: 10).

27Although the degree varies, the weakening of labor, one of the principal stakeholders of the welfare State, is a constant in all three countries. Labor was the main social actor to sustain the fordist pact in the United States and Canada (and a segmented-fordist pact in Mexico), where productivity gains were divided among profits and distribution (both directly through salaries and indirectly through social protection measures) (Boyer, 2002–2003). It has thus been in the interest of all governmental elites, in alliance with interests of employers (especially multinational companies) that wanted to pursue more liberal economics, to undermine labor organizations. This has clearly been the case in the United States and in Mexico (Martin, 2012b). In Canada, what has happened is less an offensive against labor than an ever closer relation between employers and government officials, the increased influence of employers’ organizations on government officials, and their coming closer ideologically, as both have espoused neoliberal ideas (Coleman, 2013).

28On the other hand, the fact that globalization implied capital mobility and eased enormously the possibility of enterprises to re-locate their plants considerably weakened the position of labor in each particular country. Finally, the growth of unemployment, irregular jobs (or informal jobs in the case of Mexico), that has accompanied the growth of the service and commercial sector, reduced the proportion of unionized workers. Labor markets in all three countries were considerably flexibilized and the unions have nowadays a much lesser say in both hiring workers and on the organization of labor inside the enterprises as well as less power to demand better salaries and benefits. This has implied a weakening of labor and of the capacity of unions to act in defense of their social benefits (Bensusan and Middlebrook, 2012; Coleman, 2013; Martin, 2012b).

29Nonetheless, the result of these pressures on the unions has not been the same in the three countries. One of the ways to measure this is to look at the modifications of the labor law: in both Mexico and the United States employers and State functionaries have pushed for “discreet” transformations that, in Mexico, finally gave way to a labor law reform in 2012. In the case of this latter, both the discrete changes were very profound as the State was able to count on the complacency of the most important union confederations (unions are obliged to register, record their elections, collective contracts, and strike warnings at the Ministry of Labor) and the labor law reform legalized most of the flexibilization measures (subcontracting, hourly pay, temporary contracts) that were either informally implemented or formally modified in the individual collective contracts of thousands of enterprises (De la Garza Toledo and Salas, 2003; Martin, 2012b; Bensusan and Middlebrook, 2012). Opposition to these measures has been, in both Mexico and the United States, weak and disarticulated, and has not been relayed by political parties.

30Although union density has remained high in Canada (25.6% in 2008, against 11.9% in the United States, and around 10% in Mexico—Martin, 2012b and Coleman, 2013), unions are decentralized, negotiations occur at the plant level and the percentage of workers unionized and those covered by collective contracts is practically the same. In Canada, labor is structurally weak; much like in Mexico and the United States. On the other hand, while before the mid-1990s the government usually negotiated with unions and employer’s organizations the matters concerning labor and social policies, “globalization has shifted the balance between economic interests, accentuating close ties between business representatives and government, and marginalizing labor from the policy process” (Coleman, 2013). In the United States, there has never been such a relation with unions, and in Mexico it was also lost with globalization and liberalization.

31In the case of social movements and non-governmental organizations, the situation is similar in the three countries. In Canada, it has “changed dramatically. . . . Civil society now has less impact on social policy” (Phillips, 2013: 116). Just as labor “lacked vertical integration and strong horizontal bridges among organizations,” so did civil society organizations in Canada (ibid.: 117). The CSOs were undermined by the cutback in governmental resources during the 1990s, by their division due to the increase of identity politics, that split, among others, the strong women’s movement, as well as other social protection organizations. In addition, one of the consequences of the reduction of financial resources was that these movements had to get closer to the State and occupy themselves with tasks that were previously done by the government in order to survive economically (Phillips, 2013). A situation that was described almost exactly for the case of the Mexican CSOs (where they were much weaker), except for the fact that in this case the resources came from international funding for democratization and dried up when, in the year 2000, a party different from the PRI arrived into power (Bizberg, 2008). Both in the case of Mexico and Canada the result was a further division of the civil society organizations between “advocacy groups and service providing organizations seeking closer links with government” (Banting and Myles, 2013: 14). Finally, left leaning political parties, like the NDP (New Democratic Party), and social organizations that had been very active up to the 1990s and that helped implement progressive social policies, have also been weakened since the mid-1990s, party politics in Canada shifting strongly to the right (Johnston, 2013).

32Nonetheless, although we may be able to say that in all these respects the three countries underwent a similar evolution, there is a fundamental difference in that in Canada, a very decentralized federalism, provinces have had an even stronger role in shaping the social protection system than social actors (Théret, 2002). Although this has been studied extensively in the case of the health system, it is similar in other subsystems of the NSPS (Maioni, 1998). This is what allows Banting to affirm that “more than in most countries Canadian politics is territorial politics” (Banting and Myles, 2013: 6). This is the consequence of a very large country, with two great and very distinct communities, and an enormous border with a superpower. Thus, “social programs were seen as an instrument of territorial integration” (ibid.: 7). In Canada, the provinces and the dynamics between provinces and the federal State have been fundamental for the construction of the social protection system. In a decentralized federalist system, most of the innovations in this area have come from provinces (especially Saskatchewan and Quebec) (Théret, 2002; Maioni, 1998). In many cases, in the past, these innovations at the provincial level has been extended to other provinces either by provincial governments in a effort to show they are also progressive or by the federal government in order to ascertain its power and/or avoid a large difference in conditions between the provinces. Provincial social innovation became national when the federal government reacted to a possible factor of disunion. It did so when it extended the health system that was implemented by the NDP in Saskatchewan, when it cut federal resources in the mid-1990s and reacted when the provinces started financing by themselves the programs that were underfunded (Théret, 2002). And again, when the Quebec government rejected the idea of cutting the pension system.

33As we will discuss further down, in times of retrenchment, it has been again the provinces, especially Quebec, that have exerted most of the resistance (Théret, 2002; Morel, 2002). A question may play a role in the future due to the fact that while the rest of Canada is becoming more unequal, the province of Quebec has implemented a number of programs that have allowed it to escape the general trend and, in fact, expanded social protection. This situation is explained by the fact that in Quebec unions continue to be strong and are accompanied by other social movements such as the feminist one (Noël, 2013).

The Transformation of the Welfare Systems in North America3

  • 3 This section generously draws from a collective book, Bizberg and Martin (2012).

34As we mentioned in the introduction, we have not been able to witness a clear tendency to convergence in all three countries and in all three subsystems we analyze in this article (pensions, health and assistance). We have nevertheless found similar tendencies in all three countries in the subsystems that are more exposed to globalization, both in economic terms and with respect to the assumption by national political elites of the liberalization program for ideological or political reasons; this is the case of both the labor market and pensions. In contrast, health and assistance, subsystems less directly connected to capital, and more complex because they both depend more on internal social and political needs and dynamics, have suffered a less unilateral liberalization.


35While the evolution of pensions in the United States, where the system is less generous, is the perfect example of Pierson’s criticism of what institutionalists call the power resource tradition and we simply call the action of social actors and coalitions, both in Canada and in Mexico we have seen contrasting situations: In Canada, a defense of the pension system by Quebec defeated an intent to retrench it in the mid-1990s (Béland and Myles, 2008: 10). In Mexico, on the contrary, a coalition between the State and financial interests radically transformed a pension system that was limited to the workers with a formal job from a pay-as-you-go system to a total capitalization system.

  • 4 One should take into consideration that although pensions are effectively lower in Canada than in (...)

36Although, in both the United States and Canada, most individuals have their own private retirement funds, there also exists a universal public retirement system (Social Security in the United States, Old Age Security in Canada, a negative income tax: Guaranteed Income Supplement, and an earnings component: Canada/Quebec Pension Plan, see The Conference Board of Canada, 2013). Thus, in both the United States and Canada, pensions are mixed: both public and private; the private being much more important than in other developed countries: in the United States almost half of the amount of the pensions for any individual comes from the public funds and half from the private ones. In both countries, the different public programs cover on average around 40% of the pensioners’ benefits, (OECD, 2008a and b). Nonetheless, 36% of retirees rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income (The New York Times, January 3rd, 2016). While, in Canada, potential average pension benefit is a bit less than 60%, in the United States it is around 80%; due to the greatest importance of the private pensions, 61% are company sponsored (OECD, 2008a and b).4

37The fact that public pension funds cover around 40% of the pensions in both Canada and the United States has prevented that, notwithstanding the individualistic ideology promoted by the new right in the United States and the conservative (Mulroney, 1984–1993) and liberal governments of Canada (Chrétien, 1993–2003), they dare touch the system, called the “third rail” (alluding to the electrified rail of the Metro—“if you touch it you die”) (Turcotte, 2012).

38Nonetheless, the conditions in the last twenty years in both countries have worsened for pensioners. They are both subject to the same demographic pressures as in both the dependence rate is around 24% (OECD, 2008a and b). “52 percent of American households with someone 55 or older have nothing saved for retirement and . . . only half of that 52 percent will get anything from a company pension.” On the other hand, “in 2013, 44 percent of workers on the lower half of the income scale had a retirement plan at work, down from 54 percent in 1995” (The New York Times, January 3rd, 2016). In Canada, “between 1977 and 2011, the proportion of the overall employed population covered by RPPs declined from 52% to 37% among men, mainly because of a drop in defined benefit (DB) plan coverage. Among women, RPP coverage increased from 36% to 40% over the same period (Statistics Canada, 2015).

39Nonetheless, while in the United States, elderly poverty is around 22%, the rate in Canada fell by 25 percentage points—from 36.9% in 1976 to 12.3% in 2010. This is basically due to the Canada Pension Plan and Quebec Pension Plan. Although it is true that since 1995 it has increased from 3.9 % to 10.2 % in 2005 and again to 12.3% in 2010, “among the elderly, the biggest jump occurred in the group of elderly women” (The Conference Board of Canada, 2013). In Canada, the “radical push” in the mid-1990s to replace the CPP by individual retirement accounts was rejected by Quebec, backed by Saskatchewan and British Columbia, which were then ruled by the NDP. They succeeded due to the fact that a CPP reform would have required the consent of two thirds of the provinces (Béland and Myles, 2008: 9–10). The problem in Canada resembles that of Europe, where baby boomers are reaching the age of retirement in a context of low population growth. In this case, although immigration is high, it does not compensate for a very fast decreasing birth rate. Thus, so-called “parametric” reforms, which included the raising of the age of retirement and the level of contributions from 5% to 9.9%, were implemented in order to assure the viability of the system (Turcotte, 2012).

40In contrast to Canada, although Social Security in the United States has not been modified, many of the compulsory contributions that were implemented by company funds have been substituted by private accounts, which are voluntary. The decline of unionism led many companies to reduce their pension programs. Since 2008, this situation has worsened due to many company bankruptcies. Finally, there has been an extended fiscal policy of advantaging individual savings by fiscal deductions. All of this has resulted in the fact that the rate of wage substitution has been reduced from 50% to 40% (Martin 2012b; Turcotte, 2012: 272).

41In Mexico, the public and private pensions only cover around 38% of the economically active population (Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo, OECD and World Bank, 2015), one of the lowest percentages in Latin America, and the lowest among OECD countries. The consequence is that around 17% of people over 65 are poor (ibid.). Such a weak system, because it is seen as a privilege for only part of the workers, was totally privatized in the 1990s and 2000s, going from a pay-as-you-go system to a total capitalization one. This transformation was achieved with practically no resistance: in the first place, officialist unions, that were still the great majority, had been significantly weakened by flexibilization and democratization; the independent unions protested but, as they were in minority, they did not manage to change the force relationship (Bizberg, 2004). On the other hand, unions accepted the reform because the change would affect the new entrants and not those that were in the system.

  • 5 By the way (or maybe principally) benefiting the banking system that would manage these funds.

42The system was transformed by an alliance between the government and the financial interests. The government launched a campaign with the idea that the system was financially inviable and that it was unjust to spend so much on “privileged” workers while the resources were needed for programs for the poor. On the other hand, the financial sector and the government technocrats argued that the capitalization of pensions would contribute to raise the rate of internal savings and increase investments.5 Nonetheless, as the government took into account the past history of the Mexican financial system, that had collapsed in 1982 and again in 1995, it set very strict restrictions on the use of these funds, which are effectively only invested in government bonds and do not finance the private sector (Brachet-Márquez, 2007; Dion, 2006; Laurell, 1999; Turcotte, 2012).


43“In comparison with the tender treatment of programs critical to the middle classes, benefits for the unemployed and other vulnerable Canadians experienced deep cuts” (Banting and Myles, 2013: 22). In the case of the United States, “Reagan was able to cobble together a loose coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans in his first year to pass some cuts in social programs, especially those affecting the poor” (Pierson, 1996: 164). In both countries, the poor have been the most affected by cuts, basically because they are the least organized and weakest social sector. As Martin affirms, the poor where part of a “dual” and fragmented sector of the social protection system that left them isolated when the ideology and party composition in Washington changed (Martin, 2012a: 139).

44In Canada, since 1995, the liberal governments have reduced the unemployment benefits and the transfers to the provinces, both of which have mainly affected the poor, although they maintained their social inclusion rhetoric. On the contrary, the conservative governments have been restricted in their intent of cutting social spending and retrenching of the welfare regime (Bizberg and Martin, 2012: 24). The cuts in this country were basically related with the fiscal crisis of the federal State of the mid-1990s that had as its consequence the reduction of transfers from Ottawa. The provinces reacted differently to this situation, some compensated and maintained the level of spending (Quebec), while the richest and more liberal ones followed federal policy. While the Canadian Assistance Plan allowed the federal government to reimburse the provinces 50% of their costs relative to transfers and other social services for the poor, in 1991 the federal government modified this agreement and set a “ceiling” of 5% of the annual increase of the three richest provinces: Ontario, British Columbia an Alberta. In 1995, the Canadian Assistance Plan was unified with health and education in the Canada Health and Social Transfer, a measure which was designed to progressively cut the expenditure of the federal social programs (Banting and Myles, 2013; Maioni, 2012: 72).

45This attitude of the federal government led “Quebec [to carve] out an increasingly assimetrical place in the federation, expanding its autonomy in social policy beyond that of other provinces” and implement a “combination of retrenchment with social policy renewal,” that amounts to a relative expansion of the welfare state, when one sees it in comparison with the rest of Canada and with the United States (Noël, 2013: 266); a similar situation to that described by Thelen for some of the countries in northern Europe that liberalized and expanded social security (Thelen, 2014). The renovation in Quebec came especially in what concerns family policy: universal childcare, active labor market policies and a strategy against poverty and social exclusion (Banting and Myles, 2013: 16–17). This expansion was as Noël says “not about culture and traditions of identity and nationalism but, rather, about social democracy” (Noël, 2013: 257). In Quebec, organized society—labor, women’s movement and social and community organizations—remained strong. The civil society density, together with the need to unite Quebec after the failure of the referendum, gave way to these reforms that, as it has happened before in the history of this country, distinguished Quebec from the other provinces, with the provision that “Quebec is fairer” that dominated in the past and made other provinces and the federal government itself upgrade (Boychuk, 2013: 242).

46Another example of a trend that is also very different from the purely institutionalist interpretation is that of Mexico. Mexico followed a contrary trend, shifting from corporatism to assistance. While, before the crisis of the 1980s, the organized workers and peasants were the main political support of the PRI, the effects of the crisis, the abandoning of import substitution for an export-led economy had as one of its major effects the increase of the informal sector and of the poor. These sectors became the main political basis of the subsequent governments. By instrumentalizing globalization, the ideological resources of neoliberalism, and the support of institutions such as the World Bank, the Mexican State managed to transform the character of the welfare state from one oriented to co-opt organized labor towards another directed to assist and gather political support from the poor. In fact we have seen a significant expansion of targeted cash transfer programs, that have undoubtedly improved the lives of people (up to 20% of the total population of Mexico is concerned, more than 5 million families), and that cost the government less than 1% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) (against 10% for other services); a crucial issue for the Mexican government, given its very low fiscal capacity (Gordon Rapoport, 1999; Laurell, 1997; Lautier, 2004; Valencia Lomelí, 2008).


47Finally, the health system in two of the North American countries, Mexico and the United States, has been modified quite significantly, while that of the third one, Canada, has been maintained almost unchanged. In both Mexico and the United States, the health system has advanced toward universalization, although in both countries it is still far from having reached its goals. In Canada it has maintained its universal character, although the ageing of the population plus the underinvestment of the subsystem during the last twenty years has reduced its quality.

48As is well known, the United States is the only developed country that does not have a universal health coverage, as it has systematically left out around 15% of the population out of any public or private health plans before ObamaCare. The system hinges on private insurance plans, some allocated by work places (if they are big enough), but most (increasingly so) individually financed. It is a very inefficient system, for the United States spends 17.9% of GDP in health, while other countries, like Canada (11.95%), UK (9.6%), and France (11.3%), spend much less for universal systems; its costs increase much more rapidly than in almost all other developed countries, basically because the State does not regulate in any manner the system (Barker, 2006; Docteur et al., 2003; Herzlinger, 2006; Hoffman and Paradise, 2008; Jasso-Aguilar et al., 2004; Maioni, 1998; Peters, 2005; <​indicator/​SH.XPD.TOTL.ZS/​countries?display=default>). In addition, many people, even those that are covered by health plans, go broke or have to spend a great amount of money when they get sick due to co-payments or because they exceed their coverage. Although there is Medicare for people 65 and over that covers about 62% of health care costs, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) estimates that a 65-year-old couple needs around $240,000 in savings to cover their health care expenses in retirement.6

49In Mexico, there are two large health systems that allocate services to around 40% of the population: the larger one for the workers of the private sector, the IMSS, and another for the public functionaries, the ISSSTE. There are, in addition, smaller contributory health schemes for the army and petroleum workers. Until recently, the rest of the population had, only formally and in effect for only very serious situations, access to the open public (State) health services. Although the Mexican government has repeatedly announced the right of all the population to health services in its hospitals and clinics, the fact that they had no right to these services but were allocated according to need forced them to recur to private practice. On the other hand, medicines prescribed were almost always lacking, both in the public system and the social security one. In addition, as the waiting time in all these services was so long, many patients preferred to pay for a private doctor for non-serious diseases. This situation explains why in 2014 44% of the total health expenditure in Mexico is still out-of-pocket, compared with 11% for the United States and 13,6% in Canada (6,3% for France; 25,5% in Brazil).7

  • 8Solidaridad” (1988–2002), “Progresa” (2002–2007), “Oportunidades” (2007–2014) and now “Prospera”.
  • 9 It has many other elements that we cannot discuss here for lack of space.

50Although both Mexico and the United States have recently followed a path towards universalization, while in the United States it continued its dominant market character, based on private insurance companies (the idea of a public insurance company was eliminated from the Obama health care plan very soon in the game), in Mexico the health care plan is a complement to the assistance program, Progresa,8 and is a public, basically free, Medicaid type insurance, although it restricts itself by posing a limited catalogue of diseases. The Obama health plan is fundamentally based on economic stimuli for individuals that cannot afford the insurance plans that exist in the market, the obligation on the part of the insurance companies to propose affordable plans to them and fines against individuals who do not contract some plan.9 In this manner, it could ideally reach universality while preserving the market, with the idea that one of the most positive characteristics of the liberal health system of the United States is its flexibility, its capacity to innovate, its quality, and its availability for those covered.

51In contrast with the health plan promoted during the Clinton presidency, ObamaCare was successful because the situation of many Americans regarding their health insurance was greatly aggravated by the global economic crisis, as it greatly increased unemployment, which in turn increased the percentage of people uncovered by the private health system based on company insurances. It is also explained in political terms by the election of the first black president on a more social agenda, based upon black and migrant population more hardly touched by both the crisis and the lack of health coverage. It was thus, in part, a retribution to Obama’s electoral base.

52In the case of Canada, universal health care and the State as sole payer have become cultural characteristics that distinguish Canadians from Americans. In this country, then, no party would dare touch the system. As health insurance (like education) is an exclusive attribution of the provincial governments, it has been fiercely defended by most of them: each time the federal government threatens to reduce its transfers or intervene too much, the provincial governments resist. On the other hand, the federal government is always attentive to growing differences between the provinces and stops any hints of privatization of the system, such as those observed in Alberta and British Columbia, that could menace its survival as a federation. Thus, the issue is neither universality, nor availability (as everybody has a right to health services, nobody goes broke as a result of falling sick), but the fact that the system is overcrowded and waiting times for certain medical acts have strongly increased. In part because of the aging of the population, but also because the resources allocated to the system have been reduced since the mid-1990s. This situation, together with the fact that the baby-boom generation has more resources and can “escape” the system in different ways, is eroding its legitimacy. Those who can afford the costs can go to the United States and pay for health services there, or to private clinics that perform health exams that make it feasible for patients to “skip the line” and forgo waiting if they are found to need emergency care. The question is then how to make the system more expedient. One possibility is to invest more in a system that has proven to be very efficient in the past, another is to introduce private health into the system, under the idea that it is more efficient, more capable of innovation, etc. Nonetheless, the fact is that the system has changed marginally during these last twenty years (Banting, 1997; Battle, 1998; Bauer, 1998; Boismenu et al., 2003; Fortin, 2004; Maioni, 1998; Okma, 2002; O’Neill, 1997; Phillips, 1995; Stolberg, 2004; Taylor, 1987; Théret, 2002).

53Finally, in the case of Mexico, the goal was neither the preservation of a health service market nor a universal public health system, but the construction of a health system which would be complementary to the conditional (and eventually the unconditional) cash transfers. It was also proposed to eventually be the basis of a coherent assistance scheme, although dominated by medical assistance to the poor, which accounts for 48% of the total internal hospital services and 71% of hospital outpatient services, with a bare 13% of total health expenditure. The idea of a universal coverage, albeit at a minimum level, is a complement of the shift from a social security system based on corporatism to one based on assistance. The tendency towards the substitution of the social-security-based health system by a public assistance-oriented Seguro Popular is founded both on the fact that assistance is cheaper than the social security system and on the fact that, in contrast to the past, when the corporatist sectors constituted the main political basis of the regime, since the 1980s the poor have become the main electoral basis of any government. It is also evident that because the neoliberal economic model has been incapable of reducing poverty (it has actually increased in the case of Mexico), poverty has to be administered, as Lautier (2004) wrote, and social policy has to be oriented towards it in order to preserve social stability (Brachet-Márquez, 2007; Dion, 2006; Frenk, 1995 and 2007; Frenk et al., 2003; Laurell, 1997 and 2007).

54This program intended to attain universal health care and although it did not propose to integrate the contributive and non-contributive health sector, its implications will most certainly lead to this in the future. It started out by incorporating all the recipients of Oportunidades that entered the program with no charge and gave the possibility, on a voluntary scheme, to informal workers to enter by paying a small fee. Although the measure to integrate the poor was surely quite positive, because it formally gave them the right to demand health care, the informal workers have not massively subscribed. In fact, data of international institutions such as WHO have mentioned that there are still more than 30 million people without coverage.

Final Considerations

55In this article we have been able to see that the dynamics of globalization have the same effects neither in the three countries of the North American area, nor in the three dimensions we have considered—pensions, health and assistance. In the realm of pensions, we have seen how, despite the fact that both Canada and the United States started out from a similar system, with a low substitution rate, its high level of coverage makes it very popular and thus difficult to modify for electoral reasons. In Canada, the resistance against change from Quebec was crucial. On the contrary, in Mexico, pensions have been radically modified, as they passed from a “pay-as-you-go” system to a totally individualized and capitalized one, following the Chilean model, due to the weakness of the Mexican labor movement, and to the strength of the national and international financial interests and of the State-led offensive against the corporatist welfare system.

56In the case of health, tendencies have also diverged. While in Canada the system was left almost untouched, although one may say there was a drift (in Hacker’s terms), in the case of the United States and Mexico there has been an expansion, albeit a limited one in both. In Mexico, the expansion of health coverage was linked to the assistance-oriented dimension that has become the central characteristic of the Mexican social security system. Finally, in terms of assistance to the poor, while in both the United States and Canada the social programs oriented to the poor have been reduced, due to the fact that in these two countries the poor are the weakest and less organized sectors of society, in both Mexico and Quebec we have been able to see an expansion. In the case of Quebec, expansion occurred for political reasons as well as due to the density and pressure of civil society. In the case of Mexico, assistance to the poor was increased basically due to social and political stability considerations: because of the fact that the poor and unorganized part of the population has grown and has become the main political basis for most of the parties, and because no government can ignore the effects of neoliberalism on Mexico, the State has had to implement measures to “protect society” in Polanyi’s terms.

57It is in Mexico where globalization has had the most profound impact, as the government, in alliance with foreign and big national capital, has adopted totally and uncritically an open and deregulated economic model, based on exports and foreign capital. The social protection system was shifted from corporatism (which was functional for the import-substitution model and for the authoritarian PRI regime) to a social-protection model based on assistance, oriented to the very poor and increasingly towards the growing informal sector; both “structural” consequences of an economic model based on low salaries as a manner to maintain international competitivity.

58Although globalization means that the three countries are subject to the same pressures from the international and national economic actors (enterprises and institutions) and to the dominant ideas regarding the weight of the State on the economy and its consequences on social security spending, as globalization is instrumentalized in different manners by the internal political elites and these encounter resistance from different inside social and political actors, the result of the pressures of this general movement are diverse. The analysis of the effects of globalization on the social security systems of the three countries in North America is a clear proof of this phenomenon.

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1 I say formally because due to a series of deficiencies and shortages of the system, patients have to spend huge amounts of money out-of-pocket.

2 Nowadays, there is a very restrictive one, limited to the City of Mexico.

3 This section generously draws from a collective book, Bizberg and Martin (2012).

4 One should take into consideration that although pensions are effectively lower in Canada than in the United States, they are compensated by the universal health system, that does not exist in the United States, where even though there is Medicare for those over 65 years old, the system has many loopholes that may ruin people.

5 By the way (or maybe principally) benefiting the banking system that would manage these funds.

6 <>.

7 <>.

8Solidaridad” (1988–2002), “Progresa” (2002–2007), “Oportunidades” (2007–2014) and now “Prospera”.

9 It has many other elements that we cannot discuss here for lack of space.

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Ilán Bizberg, « The Welfare State, Globalization and Internal Sociopolitical Dynamics: The Case of North America », Socio, 7 | 2016, 187-216.

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Ilán Bizberg, « The Welfare State, Globalization and Internal Sociopolitical Dynamics: The Case of North America », Socio [En ligne], 7 | 2016, mis en ligne le 14 décembre 2016, consulté le 19 février 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/socio.2530

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Ilán Bizberg

Ilán Bizberg est professeur à El Colegio de México, il est également membre associé du CADIS / École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Paris, de l’International Research Training Group « Zwischen Raumen » du centre latino-américain de la Freie Universität Berlin, et membre du CEIM/UQAM, Québec. Il est titulaire d’un doctorat en sciences sociales (EHESS), sous la direction d’Alain Touraine. Il a fait sa recherche postdoctorale à l’université de Bielefeld avec la bourse d’étude de la Humboldt Stiftung. Son dernier ouvrage est Variedades de Capitalismo en América Latina, Mexico, El Colegio de México, 2015.

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