Social Policy in the United States: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective. America, 75(July 6, 1996):33. Reviewer: Robert C. Bannister.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT America Press Inc. 1996

For more than a decade, Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol has provided a voice of cautious optimism in the often rancorous debate on social policy-making. In this collection of 10 of her most important essays, published from 1987 to 1994, she argues that history holds important lessons for current discussions of social welfare spending. Challenging a popular perception that the United States historically has resisted spending for social welfare, Skocpol cites the massive 19th-century investment in public education and the Federal Civil War pension program that by 1910 delivered benefits to more than a third of elderly men in the North and to many widows and orphans. From 1900 through the 1920's Federal and state governments also enacted an array of protective legislation for women and children, creating a "maternalist welfare state" often overlooked in histories of social welfare. These measures, in turn, led to the burst of social legislation during the New Deal.

Rather than being a laggard in welfare creation, the United States was exceptional when compared with Europe, although prevailing interpretations fail to explain this exceptionalism adequately. Skocpol dismisses arguments that a "logic of industrialism" produces social-welfare measures automatically as a population moves from an agrarian to an urban wage economy, that national values account for differences (Bismarckian "patriarchalism" versus U.S. laissez-faire individualism, for example) or that business itself pioneered a uniquely American welfare capitalism.

Rather, the key lies in the distinctive pattern of U.S. "state formation." In contrast to Europe, the United States lacked the elements of premodern polity (monarchy, a standing army and bureaucracy and recurring mobilization for military action against relative equals). The American "state" in the 19th-century consisted of the courts, political parties and locally oriented politicians. Early democratization brought support for public schooling, while a political patronage system fostered Civil War benefits. When government at last began to become more professional and bureaucratic after 1900, reformers dismantled these benefits in their battle against "corruption," assuring that any future U.S. welfare state would not be built upon these early initiatives. The courts meanwhile shot down most regulations benefiting working men, the exception being the protective legislation won largely by women for women.

The Social Security Act of 1935, the centerpiece of modern U.S. social insurance, reflects this history. Of its three original elements--unemployment insurance, public assistance and old-age insurance--only the last was entirely national in scope, requiring that taxes be withheld across the country and held in a Federal fund. Unemployment insurance remained a patchwork of state-administered benefits, while public assistance, as extended in various Great Society programs, became modern "welfare," with all its negative connotations. This outcome was no accident, as Skocpol (and G. John Ickenberry) detail in a lengthy account of the way academic experts and their political allies in the 1930's fashioned and defended "sound" social insurance against more radical, grass-roots proposals. If predictable, the result was also unfortunate, as "social security," in the limited sense of old-age benefits, channels social resources "disproportionately through [a] politically and fiscally privileged" insurance program.

Although much of this argument will be familiar to readers of Skocpol's path-breaking study Protecting Soldiers and Mothers (1992), this collection of essays sheds additional light on two dimensions of recent debate. The first has pitted proponents of "targeting" programs to those most in need against advocates of "universalist" measures that cross lines of class and race. Although "targeting" historically foundered on "rock-hard political realities" (from 19th-century poor houses to the 1960's War on Poverty), Skocpol notes, certain "universalist" programs have achieved widespread support even when disproportionally benefiting the disadvantaged (termed "targeting within universalism"). Examples include Civil War pensions, "materialist" protections and even Social Security, which has distributed proportionally, if not absolutely, more retirement income to low-income workers. "Targeting within universalism" also addresses the debate over "generational parity" and the need to distribute more benefits to middle-aged, middle-income working citizens--concerns represented, on the right, by the Concord Coalition and, on the left, by the Children's Defense Fund.

In pursuit of "targeting within universalism," Skocpol proposes a "family security" package of wage-tax-funded child support, paid parental leave, refundable tax credits, a federally administered job market and publicly funded universal health insurance--all of which looked more plausible in the early 1990's (when she outlined them) than in the wake of the 1994 elections. Admitting as much in a newly written conclusion, Skocpol continues to maintain that an "opening" exists for a broad, democratically rooted approach to family security, attributing President Clinton's difficulties to "the institution and circumstances of U.S. politics" rather than to a failure of leadership.

While only the future will tell if this setback is permanent or temporary, or whether circumstance or leadership was crucial, the current legislative policy that Skocpol considers popular points to important if not fatal shortcomings in her analysis. Earlier examples of successful welfare spending depended on exceptional circumstances (gratitude toward veterans, a Victorian belief in the specific vulnerability of women and economic depression in the 1930's); maternalist measures drew support in part because they restricted competition with male workers and saved money because of the existence of a woman's network of unpaid activists. Many were shortlived or underfunded because these supporters lacked real power. Without these special circumstances, and given public attitudes toward welfare cheats, single mothers and intrusive Federal bureaucracy, it is difficult to share Skocpol's faith that past example promises future success. Her wide-ranging, undeniably brilliant analysis is indispensable reading for everyone concerned with the outcome.