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

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

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

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


Compared to other rich Western democracies, the U. S. does less to help its citizens adapt to the uncertainties of life in a market economy. In Welfare As We Knew It, Charles Noble offers a groundbreaking explanation of why America is so different. Drawing on research in comparative politics, history, and sociology, he demonstrates that deeply-rooted political factors, not public opinion, have limited what reformers have been able to accomplish. Rich historical analysis covering the Wilson administration to the present is followed by a provocative look at future U. S. social policy. Reformers who want government to do more, Noble argues, must refocus their activities on political and institutional change, such as campaign finance and labor-law reform, if they hope to succeed. Taut, comprehensive, and accessible, with a much-needed international perspective, this book will change the way we look at U. S. social policy.


Three factors have proved decisive in the development of Western welfare states: the balance of power between business and labor, the organization of political institutions, and the nature and extent of racial and ethnic cleavages. Individually and in combination, these factors have determined whether social reformers have been able to build comprehensive welfare states. Where wage earners have been unified and well-organized; where labor, social-democratic, or socialist political parties have emerged to represent working-class voters; and where the state and party systems have been centralized--under these conditions, welfare-state building has proceeded apace. Absent these preconditions, social reformers have faced enormous collective action problems that have made only the most limited reforms politically feasible.

Seen from this perspective, the American political environment has been unusually inhospitable to social reformers. In the United States, workers have been weak and divided by racial and ethnic identities, business interests have been both powerful and resistant to reform, and the state and party systems have been highly decentralized. These factors have combined to create unusually high barriers for political movements that have wanted to use government to promote economic security, and have led to more market-conforming policies.

The Class Struggle, American-Style

The role of class-based organizations in the development of Western welfare states is clear. The organization of business and labor, the resources that these two groups can bring to bear in political struggles, and the ways in which both have defined and pursued their interests have regularly influenced what governments have done to protect society from market forces. American unions' inability to organize a majority of wage earners--in particular, their failure . . .

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