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

By Charles Noble | Go to book overview

Conclusion

What, finally, does this history of the American welfare state tell us about the questions that animated this study? The most striking conclusion is just how much political and institutional structures have done to frustrate the development of a more generous, comprehensive welfare state in the United States--how few choices reformers really had.

Standing outside the system, it is relatively easy to find fault with how American reformers went about building the welfare state. Even when large political and economic shocks temporarily lowered the political-institutional barriers to change, reformers chose to extend rather than supplant market principles and institutions, helping to recreate the very same structures and organizations that imprisoned them. In the Progressive period, the decision to build targeted, maternalist programs rather than universal programs made it that much more difficult for middle-class Americans to identify a widely shared public interest in economic security--an interest that might have simultaneously guided and legitimated state intervention into the market. In the 1930s and 1940s, the decision to build a federated welfare state and not pursue full employment institutionalized the economic foundations of corporate power, left American workers unusually dependent on market sources of income and the decisions of private employers, and reproduced political divisions within the working class. In the 1960s, the decision to launch a War on Poverty and to extend social protection to the aged without substantially increasing the state's redistributional or regulatory capacities left the American welfare state extremely vulnerable to political attack. In the 1970s, the failure to do more to protect working and middle-class standards of living from changes in the global economy made matters worse, feeding the backlash against the welfare state.

Still, it is hard to ignore how rational and reasonable these choices were given the political environment in which they were made, an environment that included a comparatively weak and, recently, declining labor movement, deep racial divisions, a frag

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