The Incomplete Americanization
of European Welfare Policy
I have a confession to make. For over two decades, I have discussed with students that the research literature was filled with references to the United States as a “welfare-state laggard.”1 Research study after research study provided copious statistical documentation on the fact that the United States spent far less on social welfare policies to combat poverty and did less to aid the poorest members of U.S. society than did most, if not all, other industrialized societies.2 The major implicit normative subtext of such objective social science studies was more often than not the idea that the United States would, it was hoped, eventually “catch up” to European welfare states that had often started earlier, say with Bismarck’s plan for social security in the 1880s, than the U.S. welfare state that was seen as being founded with the Social Security Act of 1935.
The metaphor of lagging behind in time was palpable in a social science literature that was assumed to be providing an objective, factual presentation of reality. Claims to objectivity not withstanding, distance and time metaphors have long been popular in social welfare policy discourse of liberal, individualistic, capitalistic societies for suggesting that some people,
1. Mary Ruggie has pointed out that Harold Wilensky was the first to call the United States a “welfare state laggard.” See Mary Ruggie, “Rich Democracies: Political Economy, Public Policy, and Performance by Harold L. Wilensky,” Political Science Quarterly 118, 2 (Summer 2003): 355–56. Wilensky actually originally called the United States a “reluctant welfare state.” See Harold L. Wilensky, “The Problems and Prospects of the Welfare State,” in Industrial Society and Social Welfare, Harold L. Wilensky and Charles N. Lebeaux, eds. (New York: Free Press, 1965), pp. xii–xxv. Also see Bruce S. Jansson, The Reluctant Welfare State, 4th edition (Belmont: Wadsworth/Brooks Cole, 2001); Diane Sainsbury, Gender, Equality and Welfare States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 28–29; Richard Titmuss, Essays on the Welfare State (London: Allen & Unwin, 1958); and Gosta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (New York: Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990).
2. For a recent and thorough example of such research, see Lee Rainwater and Timothy M. Smeeding, Poor Kids in a Rich Country: America’s Children in Comparative Perspective (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2003).