Herman Deleeck

dr. Herman Deleeck – founder of the Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy



1959. Herman Deleeck, in his early thirties, worked for the ACW’s research department (Christian Workers’ Association). He met a young promising student who was writing his master’s thesis on the democratisation of education. To that end he wanted to interview 60 blue collar worker families in Flanders. But as he was a student without a lot of money, Herman Deleeck gave him a rail card to pay for his transportation for one month. The student’s thesis later became a famous and ground breaking book. And the student became a famous professor. This story strikingly typifies Herman Deleeck: his calling and the path he took to pursue it.


The battle against social inequalities


What drove Herman Deleeck’s life and work was his desire to fight inequality, be it social, cultural or income inequality. He was deeply convinced that a great structural redistribution from rich to poor, from strong to weak, from young to old, from healthy to sick, was necessary. More equal chances through institutions, policy and income transfers. That is the essence of our welfare state, which he praised in his last book as an ‘unrivaled outstanding societal form, Europe’s mental ideal’ (Deleeck, H. (2001), De architectuur van de welvaartsstaat opnieuw bekeken, Acco: Leuven/Leusden, 482 p.). At the same time he saw the welfare state’s limitations and did not eschew any critique on the inadequacies of social policy.


The Matthew effect


The Matthew effect is without any doubt professor Deleeck’s most famous argument. It is a critique on some mechanisms of redistribution “that result in the fact that advantages of social policy tend to go proportionally more to the higher social groups than the lower ones”. The best examples are child allowances and pensions. Families from higher social groups receive more child allowances than those from lower social groups because their children study longer and in greater numbers. And because high skilled people live longer than low skilled people they enjoy their (higher) pension longer.


Social-scientific research as cancer research


In the first place he used scientific research as a lever for change: pragmatically, systematically and without any prejudice. He was a rigorous researcher who liked to mirror himself to the positive sciences: “Our social emotion – he wrote in his farewell speech – is not only emotion… based on scientific research … we want to provide a service to the community. Such pragmatic compassion is usually expected and accepted from a medical professional who fights against cancer. But actually, the same applies to a social scientist” (Deleeck, H. (1993), Het sociale zekerheidsonderzoek. Een terugblik naar de toekomst, Afscheidscollege gehouden door Prof. Dr. H. Deleeck op 29 oktober 1993, Acco: Leuven).


He worked a lot; he meticulously kept his bibliographies up to date. He read a lot, and not only pieces from his own field of expertise. He was an exceptionally good and razor sharp judge of texts.  He continuously strove for the greatest intellectual honesty. One of his researchers once wrote in his doctoral thesis a strong critique of the CSP poverty norm which was developed and dearly cherished by Herman Deleeck. He critiqued the norm on methodological grounds. Deleeck did not really agree with this critique, but he never demanded to make amendments to the text. The researcher received the PW Segersprijs for this thesis… with Deleeck as president of the jury.


The tram pass


Herman Deleeck was one of the pioneers of large scale empirical socio-economic research in Belgium. In 1975, he was the first to create a social map of Flemish families based on a large scale survey of 5,000 families. The surveys were carried out by means of a questionnaire that was hardly any larger than a ‘tram card’ (he was proud of it as he believed that long questionnaires yield poor data).

The size, features and determinants of poverty (he preferred the term financial insecurity) were mapped while for the first time the social adequacy of social security was measured. He had created an important instrument that led to important new scientific insights: between the dream of social justice and the development of adequate social policy lie many practical objections (Deleeck, H., Berghman, J., Van Heddegem, P., Vereycken, L. (1980), De sociale zekerheid tussen droom en daad. Theorie-onderzoek - beleid, Deventer/Antwerpen, Van Loghum Slaterus, 374 p.). Deleeck’s survey also formed the basis of the development of social policy in Belgium. The crisis of the 1980s resulted in less poor people in Belgium than elsewhere, “because poverty measurements of the Centre for Social Policy closely monitored the situation and stimulated politicians to take selective, poverty eradicating social measures” (G. Tegenbos in De Standaard van 1/11/2002).


European social indicators


Through the years, Herman Deleeck tirelessly kept on insisting on the need to complement the commonly used economic criteria (GDP, inflation, etc.) with quantitative social indicators for policy design. He was very influential, also in the Netherlands (testimony of that is his Chair in Leiden), in European circles and in other European countries. He was the first in Europe to develop social indicators for various member states (Deleeck, H., Van den Bosch, K., De Lathouwer, L. (1992), Poverty and the Adequacy of Social Security in the E.C.. A comparative analysis, Aldershot, Avebury, 201 p.).

Many years later (during the 2001 Belgian presidency of the EU) Europe decided to use social indicators to map member states’ social performance. That was an important decision as it may prove to form the basis of the development of European social policy. Herman Deleeck was part of the group of scientists who paved the way.


Deleeck’s school


Herman Deleeck founded the Centre for Social Policy. He consciously attempted to develop a school of thought. He desired “ a group of mental sons and daughters who would spread his word” - as one “disciple” put it (P. Janssens in De Standaard 7/11/2002). He invested in people, offered opportunities, inspired, stimulated and convinced, he took great care of his teaching. He built his school and got many disciples. Very few old co-workers were not present at his funeral. He was indeed exceptionally loyal towards his old co-workers; he kept track of them throughout their lives and was very proud of them.

He left many publications, some twenty books and an impressive number of articles in national and international scientific journals. His last one was “on death and inequality: professors live longer than workers”. Oh the irony. He added afterwards: “of course this only applies in a general and statistical sense and does not apply to individual cases”. His book “the architecture of the welfare state” will undoubtedly become a classic.


Between dream and reality


Herman Deleeck built an exceptionally meritorious academic career. But he was also socially and politically committed. For eleven years he served as the director of the ACW research department and for seven years he served as a senator for the Christian Democrats. In addition he was an active and stimulating member of various associations and commissions (Flemish Fund for the Social Integration of the Disabled; Royal Commission for the Reform of Social Security; Interdepartemental Commission for Combating Poverty). His commitment was clearly of a christian democratic nature. He was a christian social democrat who had many friends in other political parties. Many prominent socialists and greens were present at his funeral next to his christian democratic friends.

Herman Deleeck had great talents: a brilliant mind, a sharp intellect, a flamboyant personality. He was a memorable teacher and had a great interest in people. He had a great sense of humour and a great ability to put himself in perspective. A boring conversation with him was impossible. He was an exceptional man, scientist, teacher and human. He loved to be part of UFSIA (later part of Antwerp University) and Antwerp University can be proud and grateful to have had him.


Dr. Herman Deleeck died on October 31st, 2002.


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