Welfare as We Knew It: A Political History of the American Welfare State

By Charles Noble | Go to book overview
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Introduction

Careful observers of social policy have known for some time that the conservative complaint against America's welfare state--that it is too big and takes too much care of an increasingly dependent population--is, in international perspective, wrong. The U.S. welfare state is striking precisely because it is so limited in scope and ambition. Compared with governments in most other rich capitalist democracies in the West, from Sweden to Canada, U.S. public policy does less to change how markets, whether global capital markets or local labor markets allocate income and employment opportunities: the American welfare state is exceptional because it is so market conforming. After a hundred years of welfare-state building, Americans remain more vulnerable to the free play of market forces than do the people of nearly every other rich capitalist society. 1

This book describes and, more importantly, offers an explanation for this condition. Contrary to many accounts, I do not believe that public hostility to the welfare state explains why the American government does less. As we shall see, public-opinion surveys regularly report that Americans support a wide range of social-welfare programs, from social security to public assistance for the poor. Nor do I think that Americans are better off with less government; in contrast to the free-market assumptions that now inform elite discussions of social policy in the United States, the available evidence suggests that public programs to promote economic security have substantially improved people's lives.

Rather, I will argue that the structure of the American political economy has profoundly limited what social reformers intent on building a welfare state have been able to accomplish. 2 Fundamental features of the political environment, principally the balance of power between business and labor, decentralized government and party institutions, and racial cleavages have prevented Americans from getting the more comprehensive welfare state that citizens of other Western capitalist democracies enjoy. If this is true, it follows that a successful effort to create a more just and generous welfare state must first change present conditions.

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