Welfare nightmare on Capitol Hill

Social Policy in the United States
June 9, 1995

Debates about welfare in the United States have recently come to exert a major influence upon welfare thinking in this country. That this should be so is in a way surprising. For the US has never possessed a developed welfare state of the sort which has existed since 1945 in the United Kingdom. More accurate and fruitful comparisons can usually be made between British welfare institutions and those of other European countries. Skocpol's book is relevant to British readers partly because it reveals the origins of the discrepancies between welfare systems in the US and UK, although she does also demonstrate some similarities and convergencies.

Skocpol's work is about the history of social policy in the US, but she keeps her sights firmly fixed on the present too. The early evolution of American welfare schemes, she argues, serves to cast a helpful light upon dilemmas of social policy today. It is not only the radical Republicans who are interested in radically reshaping welfare institutions in the US. Bill Clinton has promised (or threatened) to "end welfare as we know it". Through a careful examination of the development of welfare programmes since the late 19th century, Skocpol is able to show that such an ambition is not as fresh as may appear. It is an up-to-date version of a longstanding aim to replace dependency on public aid by the creation of wage-earning jobs.

Skocpol distinguishes two poles of the current debate about problems of social policy. The "moralists" see conflicts over welfare programmes in terms of battles between those, on the one hand, who wish to help the needy by means of government intervention and those, on the other, who hold that people should wherever possible fend for themselves. "Technocrats" see policy measures in terms of "objective" and cost-efficient solutions. Moralists and technocrats approach policy-making in quite contrasting ways; each, however, according to Skocpol, tends to operate in an almost complete historical vacuum. Both analyse policy making without reference to the overall development of the political contexts in which social policy is shaped.

Skocpol's investigations into this historical context yield some interesting results. For instance, large-scale federal government spending on welfare programmes to care for the elderly did not begin, as many assume, with the New Deal in the 1930s. They date from the latter part of the 19th century, when hefty pensions were introduced for soldiers who had fought in the Civil War and their dependents. Skocpol is also able to demonstrate that it is a myth that the "individualism" of Americans has always made them hostile to government social spending. Since the 19th century most Americans have actively supported universal welfare programmes, where these are felt to benefit wide sections of the society rather than narrowly-defined groups. Poor people in America have derived most benefit from public welfare provision, Skocpol shows, when they have been included in wide-ranging programmes involving the middle class as well as more disadvantaged classes.

The single most important factor explaining American resistance to the emergence of fully-fledged European-style welfare systems, Skocpol argues, is the ambivalence most hold towards centralised government. From the American Revolution to the present day a large proportion of the citizenry has regarded government with suspicion - recognising the benefits it sometimes can bring, but at the same time sustaining a guarded and often hostile attitude to it. An historical perspective on such ambivalent attitudes towards the state, she says, helps us grasp why Bill Clinton's plans for a comprehensive national health scheme came to grief. Clinton underestimated the potency of attacks on the spread of "government bureaucracy" by conservative critics of the health plan who were able to mobilise long-standing antipathies in their successful campaign.

If the US has not had, and in Skocpol's view will not have, welfare institutions comparable to those established in the European societies, it is not the case that the country has always lagged behind the European nations. For example, over the period from the 1880s to the 1920s the leading European countries initiated a range of pension and social insurance schemes going well beyond anything developed in the US at the time. Yet the welfare systems in Europe concentrated overwhelmingly upon male workers. In the US, even at this early juncture there was a tentative experimentation with what Skocpol calls a "maternalist" welfare state. Social policies designed directly to help mothers and working women were championed and promoted - to some extent effectively - by middle-class women's movements. Unlike in Europe, American women did not become absorbed into a wider working-class movement. Rather, they developed other alliances and political styles. One of their proposals was the establishing of minimum wages for working women: as a result some 15 state legislatures did actually put minimum wage laws on the statute book.

The term "welfare state" was invented in Britain in the midst of the second world war. It carried with it the idea of national integration and cohesion as goals to be fought for in the struggle with Nazi Germany. No such ideal, Skocpol argues, has ever been effective in the US. Americans, she says, simply do not think of federal government benefits in these terms. As it exists in Europe, the "welfare state" tends to merge social security with welfare. Americans, on the other hand, make a sharp distinction between them. Social security programmes, such as pensions insurance for old age, are regarded as basic government obligations. Welfare, however, is commonly thought of as consisting of government handouts to those seeking to get something for nothing. The Great Society programmes set up under Lyndon Johnson reflected and actually deepened this division. The Great Society project tried to tack on to the social security system a new series of policies targeted at the poor. The end-result was the accentuating of social divisions, provoking a backlash: the white middle class increasingly dissociated itself from the costly anti-poverty programmes.

Skocpol's book should provide food for thought in debates about strategies on Right and Left in this country. Both have drawn from American welfare dialogues. Of course, some ideas taken from these debates can be widely generalised; but others reflect the unique circumstances of American welfare development.

Anthony Giddens is professor of sociology and fellow, King's College, Cambridge.

Social Policy in the United States: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective

Author - Theda Skocpol
ISBN - 0 691 03786 8
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 326

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