European Reporters' Views of America's Welfare Reform
Gehlen, Martin, Nieman Reports
Media Coverage Shifts From Looking Abroad to Looking Next Door
Ideas travel. Historically, political entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic have pointed to the effectiveness of practices that were developed on the other side as evidence of the feasibility of their favored policies.
In the 19th Century, Friedrich List, long-time German advocate for national tariffs, went to the United States, became actively involved in the American tariff debate, and on his return campaigned for the adoption of a national economic strategy on the basis of the American success. At the turn of the century, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wanted to import the German apprenticeship system, so officials came to see and report on how it worked.
In the 1920's, German Social Democrats and union leaders were fascinated by Henry Ford's production philosophy, prompting the radical labor intellectual Jakob Walcher to write a book entitled "Ford or Marx: The Practical Solution of the Social Question." Ford's memoirs appeared in German translation in 1923 and ran through more than 30 reprints. Under the Nazis, Ferdinand Porsche toured Detroit's automobile factories in search of ideas for his Volkswagen project. After the Second World War, Germans considered almost anything American a model for imitation. By the 1970's, the so-called "Wirtschaftswunder" and the competitive edge enjoyed by German companies convinced American business leaders to look at the "Modell Deutschland."
Now, America's low unemployment and economic strength of the 1990's have ignited a broad discussion in Europe on the merits of the U.S. model.
As the first political waves of Clinton's vague '92 campaign slogan "to end welfare as we know it" reached European shores, U.S. unemployment figures dropped below German figures for the first time since the early 1960's. Led by its young, dynamic president, the United States seemed willing to become fit for the global competition of the next century by rethinking the traditional balance between the welfare state and its citizens, between public and private responsibility. The political and journalistic response was swift and comprehensive. Mainstream coverage in the German press focused on several features of the U.S. system that--if transferred to this country--could bring about a change of course in its economic and social policies.
Welfare reform measures--such as state-sponsored workfare projects--were examined with an eye toward their applicability in Germany. Along with looking at specific welfare policy changes that were taking place in states like Wisconsin, other economic and social issues were being covered as well. These included the sudden surge in U.S. jobs, wage restraint and social deregulation, the entrepreneurial spirit in the United States and the abolishment of the alleged welfare hammock for the poor.
Now, two years later, the situation has changed. The U.S. job situation appeared to lose its attraction when reporting about the dark side, the undesirable side effects of the American success story, started to show up in newspaper editorials and magazine stories. One reason for this change was that leading publications describe and treat the American welfare situation as an issue that is closely interrelated with other features of social policy like, for example, health care and the minimum wage. It is unthinkable in most European states that so many people would be without health insurance and work for such low wages without receiving government benefits.
Other topics that surfaced in reporting about American social policy included high crime and poverty rates (especially among children), large wage disparities, the working poor, dismal employment protections, and low levels of unemployment benefits. And there was also coverage about the subsidies companies receive from the government through the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which enables low-wage workers to inch out of poverty. …