Principles of Politics Exercise

Goals of This Exercise

  • Explain the differences between mandatory and discretionary federal spending and between social insurance programs and social welfare programs.
  • Provide data on the amount of federal spending allocated to the welfare state generally and social insurance and social welfare programs specifically.
  • Explore how the variability with which different economic groups encounter the collective-action problem helps to explain the differences in federal spending for “middle class welfare” and aid to the poor.

Mandatory versus Discretionary Spending

The Rationality Principle: all political behavior has a purpose. All political actors engage in instrumental acts designed to further their individual goals.

Politicians often engage in federal spending in the area of social policy to meet their policy and political goals.

The Policy Principle: political outcomes are the products of individual preferences and institutional procedures.

Different rules govern how much discretion federal politicians have over spending federal dollars in the area of social spending.

  • Mandatory spending is federal spending over which politicians lack direct control. The benefits provided by mandatory spending are entitlements guaranteed to recipients by law.
  • Discretionary spending is federal spending over which politicians are considerably less constrained in terms of whether and how to spend the money. These programs can change from year to year based on political decisions.

Federal Outlays: Discretionary, Manadatory, and Interest Spending 1965-2010

Answer the following questions:

What happened to the categories of federal spending (mandatory, discretionary, and interest payments) from 1965 to 2005?
How do these budgetary changes affect policy makers who seek to spend money to meet their political goals?
How does the change in federal spending in tandem with its impact on policy makers affect the ability of the federal government to meet its goals and responsibilities?

What Is Welfare? What Is Social Insurance?

Welfare policies (also known as “means-tested” programs) like TANF and its precursor AFDC are programs that provide benefits to the poor and needy.

Inasmuch as these programs redistribute the resources of society from those who can pay (the middle and upper classes) to those unable to contribute (the poor), these programs are controversial and politically vulnerable.

Social insurance policies (also known as “non–means tested” programs) like Medicare and Social Security are programs to which recipients have contributed their own money.

Inasmuch as these programs benefit the middle and upper classes in society, they are so popular that they are nearly unassailable politically.

Spending on Social Insurance Programs 1965-2010

Answer the following questions:

To the extent that the United States has a “welfare state,” what types of programs use most of the resources?
If it is increasingly true that the welfare state is dominated by social insurance programs rather than means-tested, traditional welfare programs, why are means-tested programs the subject of so much controversy?
To what extent do the political differences between these programs exemplify the Collective-Action Principle (All politics is collective action)? What benefits do middle class and upper class individuals have in working collectively? What comparative disadvantages do the poor encounter?


  • Marmor, Theodore, Jerry Mashaw, and Philip Harvey. America’s Misunderstood Welfare State. New York: Basic Books, 1990.
  • U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Historical Tables, Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2009. (accessed 2/22/12).

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