Chapter Study Outline


America was one of the last Western democracies to enter the realm of social policy, wherein the government assumes public responsibility for inequalities of opportunity. America’s delayed entry into this policy area is likely due to the nation’s faith in individualism, the existence of a frontier that promised opportunity for those who would move westward, and a distinction Americans made between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Throughout the nineteenth century, government largely stayed out of welfare, leaving care to private charities. Even as late as 1928, only a small percentage of relief for social problems came from the government. This traditional approach crumbled during the Great Depression, when widespread poverty outstripped the capacity of private actors to provide sufficient relief. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs—most notably the Social Security Act—transformed government’s role in society and the public’s expectations thereof. This delay in the historical development of America’s social welfare system continues to affect our politics as the country devotes fewer resources to social policies than do comparable Western democracies.

1. What is Social Policy?

What is social policy? What are the primary objectives of social policies?

  • Social policies promote three main goals: (1) they protect citizens against the risks and insecurities that most people face over the course of their lives; (2) they promote equality of opportunity; and (3) they alleviate poverty.
  • If most Americans agree with and support policies that further the first goal, the latter two have proven more controversial in America.

2. The Politics of Social Policy

What are the impediments to getting new social policies on the national governmental agenda? What are the politics that surround social policy?

  • It is difficult to predict what policies will get put on the national policy agenda. Major events like the Great Depression and Brown v. Board of Education may put social issues at the top of the public agenda but even then it is not always clear what policies should be implemented in response.
  • Social policies tend to be redistributive policies whose effects cut across class lines. Because of their redistributive character, it is exceedingly difficult to get social policies on the agenda of the president and Congress.
  • The president’s willingness to take the initiative is very important when trying to adopt redistributive social policies because the president is uniquely situated to mobilize the mass support needed to overcome preexisting, entrenched interests and the status quo more generally.
  • In comparison to regulatory and promotional policy issues, redistributive social policies are hard won. Still, once a social policy is adopted it is very difficult to alter.

3. What Are the Foundations of the Social Welfare System?

How do Social Security, Medicare, and welfare programs work in the United States? How do the politics surrounding these three social policies differ?

  • Social Security is a contributory program into which working Americans place a percentage of their wages and from which they receive cash benefits after retirement.
    • A system of forced savings, Social Security mildly redistributes wealth from higher- to lower-income people and significantly redistributes wealth from younger to older citizens.
    • An overwhelmingly popular program, Social Security has proven exceedingly difficult for politicians who wish to reform it; it is believed to be the untouchable “third rail” of American politics.
  • Established in 1965, Medicare is the biggest expansion in contributory social policy since the New Deal; it provides national health insurance for the elderly and the disabled. Recent reforms have attempted to control costs and have added prescription drug benefits. In 2010, the Obama administration expanded federal health care policy by expanding access to health insurance and requiring coverage.
  • Unlike Social Security and Medicare, welfare programs are noncontributory public assistance programs that are massively redistributive in their effects.
    • Welfare programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, and food stamps tend to be controversial because those who receive benefits generally do not contribute to the program. The programs are means-tested for eligibility, and represent an entitlement under the law for those who qualify.
    • Given the political unpopularity of some welfare programs, reform efforts have been more successful in this area of social policy. In the 1990s, AFDC was replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which aimed to reduce welfare caseloads, move recipients back to work, and give states more flexibility in administering welfare dollars.

4. Analyzing the Welfare System

What are the arguments for and against the welfare system?

  • Arguments against the current welfare system include an array of economic, social, and moral claims; critics of the system argue that:
    • The welfare system costs too much.
    • The cost is exacerbated because the government adopts a third-party structure of payment whereby neither recipients of services nor providers have to worry about costs.
    • The welfare system is too paternalistic, causing reliance on the state.
    • The welfare system is an example of moral hazard, meaning that it encourages undesirable behavior.
    • By laying blame for society’s problems on “the system,” the welfare system removes the morality (or immorality) and personal responsibility from poverty; moreover, employers are relieved from their moral responsibilities to look after their employees.
  • Arguments for the welfare system similarly include economic, social, and moral claims; supporters of the system argue that:
    • The welfare system is good fiscal policy, which automatically stabilizes the economy when it is in decline.
    • The welfare system is paternalistic in the sense that it reflects the government’s responsibility to look after the welfare of individuals.
    • The welfare system is the savior of capitalism, helping solve imperfections inherent in the market.
    • The welfare system lays most of the blame for society’s shortcomings on the “system”; indeed, we all benefit from some social policy.
    • The welfare system is politically essential to stop unrest, especially during times of widespread financial crisis.

5. How Can Government Create Opportunity?

What is the history of education policy in America and how has it changed?

  • Education is the single best equalizer for opportunity, but, prior to the Cold War, education policy was largely left to the states.
    • Since the Cold War, the national government has been more willing to set national goals and standards in education.
    • No Child Left Behind is a recent example of this trend. Still, exemplifying the Policy Principle, the fact that states were not fully convinced of the value of the effort meant that not all of them would cooperate with the national program, particularly when it came to allocating their own resources.
    • Recent efforts at school reform include controversial “school choice” and charter school proposals.

6. Who Is Poor? What Can Government Do?

What role should the government play in assisting the poor? Can the government ever eradicate poverty?

  • Minorities, women, and children are disproportionately poor; single mothers, for example, are twice as likely to fall below the poverty line as the average American.
  • The nation has a long way to go, but has come closer, in a relatively short time, toward achieving equality of opportunity.