Welfare and Social Services

   Even in a Europe friendly to state-financed welfare systems, Austria stands out for the depth and extent of such support and its exceptionally high level of income redistribution through taxation. In part, these arrangements are a legacy of the country’s history of government intervention to meet social needs. The obligation to care for one’s own was traditionally met by individual householders, rural landlords, and communes that financed hospices. None of these arrangements applied to the homeless unemployed, who by the end of the 15th century were begging their way through central Europe in disturbingly larger numbers. In 1552, Ferdinand I ordered towns and markets to care for their poor. The more modest the commune, the more it struggled with this obligation; a common solution was to point supplicants toward richer municipalities, Vienna chief among them. By the 18th century, beggars and other homeless people were officially divided into two groups: the deserving worthy of support and the undeserving, whose mendicancy was criminalized.
   Emperor Leopold I (1640–1705) established the first workhouse in the city in 1671. His son, Charles VI (1685–1740), tried to create a network of these institutions, along with orphanages, throughout the Habsburg Empire. People sent to workhouses actually drew small salaries, but their fellow inmates often included the insane and outright criminals, who made the general environment very inhospitable.
   The classical economic liberalism that prevailed in Habsburg Empire from around 1850 to 1880 discouraged government-sponsored welfare. To support themselves through sickness, accidents, old age, and burial, Austria’s middle classes joined and paid into self-help clubs and benevolent societies. By 1880, around 2,800 of such organizations existed in the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy, and the model was working its way into peasant communities as well. Many Austrian industrial workers had local factory cash funds (Fabrikskassen), often created by laborers themselves. By 1872 there were 172 of them, spread through various types of enterprises. Nevertheless, the sharp gyrations of 19th-century business cycles, the social rootlessness of these men and women, and the new militancy of the Austrian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) forced the government to develop more comprehensive welfare arrangements. The first workers’ protection legislation was put in place on 11 March 1885. Setting the maximum daily hours of labor at 11 (without any break), it also forbade heavy and night work for young people. Women were not allowed to work at night either, and child labor was completely proscribed. The regime itself took over all pension and health insurance obligations for employees of once-private railroads, which were largely taken over by the state in the final decades of the 19th century.
   Among the several crises to challenge the First Austrian Republic from 1918 to 1919 was a general collapse of public welfare. Health care, particularly for children and the elderly, was in deep disarray; malnutrition and tuberculosis took a disproportionately heavy toll on those populations. Food from abroad, especially Switzerland, then the United States, helped significantly. To forestall the spread of Bolshevism, the SDAP national government of Karl Renner quickly promised sweeping social reforms, which became law in 1919–1920. Among the most important were the continuation of wartime rent control, the eight-hour working day, unemployment insurance, and forcing businesses of a certain size to hire jobless workers. Initial steps were also taken to introduce paid holidays for workers. In 1921, accident and illness insurance was extended to agricultural laborers and state employees.
   Inflation and other economic upheavals in the 1920s and early 1930s heavily compromised these measures. Part of the Nazi appeal to Austrians was welfare programs that raised the pensions of the elderly and restored unemployment insurance. The Austrian government after 1945 recommitted itself wholeheartedly to the comprehensive social policies begun under the First Republic, though on a firmer economic footing. In 1947, the 40-hour workweek and four-week paid vacations were put in place. The Allgemeines Sozialversicherungsgesetz (General Social Insurance Law, 1955) has brought all elements of Austrian society into the social network, even rural populations, which had been especially hard to reach. Amendments in 1957 and 1971 have brought pensions for farmers and farm workers up to standard levels of the country. It is now possible for Austrians to live quite alone, in part because of earnings, but in part because of payments from a welfare system unavailable to previous generations. Austrians in the 1990s were not only retiring in flocks, but also finding ways to do it at comparatively young ages. With women able to leave the workforce for good when they turned 60, the average age of both sexes starting to collect pensions in 1994 was 58. The National Assembly voted in 2004 to make 65 the retirement age for almost everyone by 2033, though early retirement will still exist. The Austrian health care system is also under continued fiscal pressures, and more and more restrictions are being built into it. An especially sensitive issue that exploded in 2006 was payment for home care, for which costs of domestic, rather than illegal immigrant, labor have dramatically outpaced incomes and the level of state reimbursement. A large number of Austrians, particularly younger ones, have also been buying private pension insurance on the assumption that their national system will not cover their needs.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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