The 18th EASP Conference, “Transformation of Post-Covid Welfare States in East Asia: Beyond Productivist Welfare Capitalism?” took place on 24 and 25 June 2022. This year’s conference was co-hosted by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA) and the Department of Public Administration BK21 Project Group at Yonsei University. We would like to express our deepest gratitude for the academic support and generous financial contributions made by these esteemed institutions, without which this conference would not have been possible. Due to the ongoing Covid situation, the conference was held entirely online via Gather Town. The online venue featured a conference hall, seminar rooms, a pub, and even a pool/ beach area, which was designed to facilitate delegates’ interaction with each other despite the online format. More than 300 participants participated via the online platform.

This year’s theme encouraged participants to reflect on the immediate policy responses to the pandemic and its longer-term institutional effects on East Asian welfare states. While the pandemic revealed and reinforced multiple social risks and social inequalities, how much have our welfare states really changed? If not, why can’t this tremendous crisis bring about great change? Why do countries respond differently, and do social policies produce different outcomes in different societies? Why are some countries more interested in certain policy areas and others more interested in other areas? 

The four plenaries in this year’s conference shed light on these questions from different angles. The first plenary, entitled ‘The Korean Welfare State’s Challenges’, was given by Professor Lee Tae-Soo, President of the KIHASA. Professor Lee’s presentation started by outlining the persistent challenges to the Korean welfare state, such as drastic demographic changes and growing inequality amid economic slow-down. The gap between growing Korea’s economic and political status alongside these social challenges was described as a ‘prosperous country, insecure citizens’. He then traced the development of Korean social policy until 2017 and during the five-year Moon administration. These developments reflect the compressed nature of Korea’s welfare state development as well as recent politically-led efforts to universalise social policies such as child benefits, employment insurance and elderly care. Professor Lee concluded by considering the agendas of the post-covid era to cope with risks such as social isolation and disruptions caused by digital transformations and human-made crises.

The second plenary took the form of an in-conversation interview with Professor Noreena Hertz (University College London) and Professor Young Jun Choi, EASP Chair. The conversation centred on several themes discussed in Professor Hertz’s recent book, The Lonely Century: a Call to Reconnect. The themes covered included the social and economic dimensions of loneliness, the effects of digitalization on human relationships, and the political dimension of loneliness that has been played out in recent radical right-wing politics. In particular, Professor Hertz emphasized the ‘neo-liberal mindset’ where neo-liberalisation has forced people to prioritise getting ahead and individual gains over cooperative and solidaristic values. These discussions highlighted the importance of social policies and public infrastructures for creating a social environment that sustains human relationships. 

Professor Paul Pierson (UC Berkeley) gave the third plenary, ” After Covid: Lessons from the Missed turn in U.S. Social Policy”. Professor Pierson’s presentation featured the post-Covid attempt to pass the American Families Plan, which would have established universal childcare policies, including expansion of child tax credit, paid family and medical leave, and universal pre-school services. While the pandemic’s effects opened up a window for a high-impact policy breakthrough, Professor Pierson highlighted how the structure of American political institutions characterised by multiple and powerful veto players led to legislative gridlock. Professor Pierson’s study show-cased how popular but ‘just-missed’ outcomes could shed light on possible paths for institutional change as well as ingrained institutional barriers that prevent policy change even in the face of extraordinary shocks like the Covid pandemic. 

The fourth and final plenary entitled ‘In transition? Japanese Welfare State before/after COVID-19’ was given by Professor Aya Abe (Tokyo Metropolitan University). After introducing typical features of the Japanese welfare state, Professor Abe’s presentation examined the performance of Japan in 2020 in terms of the effectiveness of occupational welfare, income redistribution, and compensation for family costs related to having children compared to other Asian societies. Through an analysis of extensive data based on an international research project that compares the situation of different family profiles across six East Asian countries, her conclusions showed the deterioration of occupational welfare, the importance of public assistance for redistribution, and the relatively high performance of Japan in reducing the family penalty. These conclusions showed the shift away from corporate welfare toward more family policy in Japan.

Besides these plenaries, more than 100 papers were presented on various cutting-edge themes, including social policy responses to the Covid-19 crisis, critical human security and social policy challenges in a post-covid world, digitalization and social services, as well as ageing, gender and family, labour market and employment, health and social care, among many others.

In addition, EASP renewed its commitment to the next generation of social policy scholars by awarding the 1st Post-graduate Paper Prize at this year’s conference. The judging panel was pleased to receive many papers by post-graduate students undertaking high-quality research in new areas of social policy. Congratulations to Xin Han, who was awarded for her paper, ‘Public Service Resilience on the Cloud: State Mobilization and Digital Self-Governance in China’s COVID-19 Response’!  

We thank all delegates for their participation and hope that we can see each other in person at the next EASP Conference.

The 18th EASP Conference report