In the strictest sense, a welfare state is a government that completely provides for the welfare, or the well-being, of its citizens. Such a government provides for its citizens' physical, material and social needs rather than the people providing for their own needs. The purpose of the welfare state is to create greater economic equality or to ensure at least a certain minimum standard of living for all citizens.
Types of Benefits Provided
A welfare state provides education, housing, sustenance and healthcare for its citizens. It also provides benefits such as pensions and unemployment insurance, and it provides equal wages through price and wage controls. This type of government provides public transportation, childcare, social amenities such as public parks and libraries as well as many other goods and services. Some of these things are paid for through government insurance programs, and others are paid for by taxes.
Most advanced nations are not true welfare states, although many provide at least some social services or programs. In some countries, these goods and services generally are available only to people who meet certain eligibility requirements. Those who meet the requirements, however, are entitled to these benefits. This type of system is frequently referred to as a "safety net" that is designed to help people who are in need. Most often, these systems will provide basic needs such as food and housing.
A welfare state is socialist in nature. It redistributes wealth by more heavily taxing the middle and upper classes to provide goods and services for the needy. Even countries that don't practice socialism, however, typically will offer at least some form of safety net. These programs might be available to individuals on a temporary or permanent basis, depending on their needs and circumstances.
One problem that has been associated with welfare states is the difficulty in creating an efficient system. Some countries are unable to provide equitably for all of their citizens. The rationing of goods and services also becomes a problem when too many people depend on the welfare state to provide for their basic needs. Another problem is that many people who are capable of providing for themselves have no motivation to improve their lives because they can rely on the government to provide for them. This often breeds resentment by people who do work and are taxed more heavily to pay for the support of people who do not work.