Just as they have constrained reformers who have wanted to build a more generous welfare state, class, state, and race have shaped efforts to roll back what liberals accomplished in the 1930s and 1960s. To date, conservatives have launched three major campaigns to cut public provision: the first was led by President Richard Nixon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the second by President Ronald in the early 1980s, and the third by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich after the 1994 midterm elections. In each case, the same political and institutional factors that determined the trajectory taken by reform influenced the politics of retrenchment.
As of this writing, the conservative assault on the welfare state has had mixed results. Advocates of retrenchment have been unable to stop social spending from increasing, let alone restructure oldage pension and Medicare, the largest entitlement programs. But the right has made important inroads. Though not stopped or reversed, the rate of growth in social spending has slowed--a not inconsiderable feat given both the growing demands for public aid caused by uneven economic performance and the presumption, built into so many entitlement programs, that government would respond to distress. Indeed, as I noted in chapter 1, the United States is one of only three countries where weak spending growth in the 1970s was followed by further restraint in the 1980s ( Britain and the Netherlands are the other two), and the only one of these three to retrench again in the 1990s. And the social spending growth rate declined more precipitously here than in those two countries--despite the fact that the United States spent a smaller share of its GDP on social purposes to begin with. 1
Moreover, some programs have suffered significant spending cuts, sometimes because Congress has restructured eligibility criteria and benefit schedules, but more often because government has simply failed to act in the face of greater need. Over the long run, small changes brought about by the 1983 amendments to the Social Security Act (SSA) will have large effects, raising the retirement age and significantly lowering replacement rates (the percentage of pre-