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There are three main interpretations of the idea of a welfare state:
- the provision of welfare services by the state.
- an ideal model in which the state assumes primary responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. This responsibility in theory ought to be comprehensive[unverified], because all aspects of welfare are considered and universally applied to citizens as a right. 'Welfare state' can also mean the creation of a "safety net" of minimum standards[unverified] of varying forms of welfare. Here is found some confusion between a "welfare state" and a "welfare society" (see below) in common debate about the definition of the term.
- the provision of welfare in society. In many "welfare states", especially in continental Europe, welfare is not actually provided by the state, but by a combination of independent, voluntary, mutualist and government services. The functional provider of benefits and services may be a central or state government, a state-sponsored company or agency, a private corporation, a charity or another form of non-profit organisation. However, this phenomenon has been more appropriately termed a "welfare society," and the term "welfare system" has been used to describe the range of welfare state and welfare society mixes that are found.
- Gould, Arthur (1993). Capitalist Welfare Systems, New York: Longman. ISBN 0-582-08349-4.