Care is now a widely-used concept in welfare state research, firmly established in the literature by feminist analysis. We believe that the concept as it has been used and developed to date has limitations that have hampered its development as a general category of welfare state analysis. In essence we argue that the political economy aspects of the concept have remained underdeveloped. The main purpose of this article is to elaborate a care-centred concept – which we name social care – that countenances and develops care as an activity and set of relations lying at the intersection of state, market and family (and voluntary sector) relations. We are especially concerned to examine what the concept of social care can tell us about welfare state variation and welfare state change and development. The article works systematically through these themes, beginning with a brief historical sketch of the concept of care and then moving on to elaborate the analytic potential of the concept of social care. In the latter regard we make the case that it can lead to a more encompassing analysis, helping to overcome especially the fragmentation in existing scholarship between the cash and service dimensions of the welfare state and the relative neglect of the latter. The concept of social care serves to shift the centre of analysis from specific policy domains so that instead of focusing on cash benefits or services in isolation it becomes possible to consider them as part of a broader set of inter-relating elements. In this and other regards, the concept has the potential to say something new about welfare states.