Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-vpsfw Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-16T21:17:17.118Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Privatizing Risk without Privatizing the Welfare State: The Hidden Politics of Social Policy Retrenchment in the United States

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 June 2004

Yale University


Over the last decade, students of the welfare state have produced an impressive body of research on retrenchment, the dominant thrust of which is that remarkably few welfare states have experienced fundamental shifts. This article questions this now-conventional wisdom by reconsidering the post-1970s trajectory of the American welfare state, long considered the quintessential case of social policy stability. I demonstrate that although most programs have indeed resisted retrenchment, U.S. social policy has also offered increasingly incomplete risk protection in an era of dramatic social change. Although some of this disjuncture is inadvertent—an unintended consequence of the very political stickiness that has stymied retrenchment—I argue that the declining scope of risk protection also reflects deliberate and theoretically explicable strategies of reform adopted by welfare state opponents in the face of popular and change-resistant policies, a finding that has significant implications for the study of institutional change more broadly.

© 2004 by the American Political Science Association

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Adema Willem. 1999 Net Social Expenditure. Paris: OECD.
Adema Willem, and Marcel Einerhand. 1998 The Growing Role of Private Social Benefits. Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Adema Willem, Marcel Einerhand, Bengt Eklind, Jørgen Lotz, and Mark Pearson. 1996 Net Public Social Expenditure. Paris: OECD.
Bachrach Peter, and Morton S. Baratz. 1962The Two Faces of Power.” American Political Science Review 56 (3): 942.Google Scholar
Baker Tom, and Jonathan Simon, eds. 2002 Embracing Risk: The Changing Culture of Insurance and Responsibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Baldwin Peter. 1990 The Politics of Social Solidarity: Class Bases of the European Welfare State, 1875–1975. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Barr Nicholas. 1998 The Economics of the Welfare State. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Beck Ullrich. 1992 Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.
Blackburn McKinley L., David E. Bloom, and Richard B. Freeman. 1990The Declining Economic Position of Less Skilled American Men.” In A Future of Lousy Jobs? The Changing Structure of U.S. Wages, ed. G. Burtless. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Bonoli Giulano, Vic George, and Peter Taylor-Gooby. 2000 European Welfare Futures. Cambridge: Polity Press in association with Blackwell.
Burkhauser Richard V., and Greg J. Duncan. 1991United States Public Policy and the Elderly: The Disproportionate Risk to the Well-Being of Women.” Journal of Population Economics 4: 217–31.Google Scholar
Butler Stuart, and Peter Germanis. 1983Achieving Social Security Reform: A ‘Leninist’ Strategy.” Cato Journal 3 (2): 547–56.Google Scholar
Campbell Andrea. 2003 How Policies Make Citizens: Senior Political Activism and the American Welfare State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
Castles Francis G., and Deborah Mitchell. 1993Worlds of Welfare and Families of Nations.” In Families of Nations: Patterns of Public Policy in Western Democracies, ed. F. G. Castles. Sydney: Dartmouth.
Clayton Richard, and Jonus Pontusson. 1998Welfare-State Retrenchment Revisited: Entitlement Cuts, Public Sector Restructuring, and Inegalitarian Trends in Advanced Capitalist Societies.” World Politics 51 (1): 6798.Google Scholar
Crenshaw Albert. 1999Accidental Beginning for 401(k)s in the Tax Code.” Seattle Times, 11 April. Available at
DiPrete Thomas A., and Patricia A. McManus. 2000Family Change, Employment Transitions, and the Welfare State: Household Income Dynamics in the United States and Germany.” American Sociological Review 65 (3): 343–70.Google Scholar
Domestic Policy Council, White House. 1993 Health Security: The President's Report to the American People. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Ellwood David T., and Christopher Jencks. 2001 The Growing Difference in Family Structure: What Do We Know? Where Do We Look for Answers? Cambridge, MA: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
ERIC. 2003 Who We Are. ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC) [cited September 19 2003]. Available at
Esping-Andersen Gøsta. 1990 The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Esping-Andersen Gøsta. 1999 Social Foundations of Postindustrial Economies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Families USA. 2003 Going Without Health Insurance. Washington, DC: Families USA.
Farber Henry. 2003Job Loss in the United States, 1981–2001.” NBER Working Paper No. W9707. Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research.
GAO. 2000 Unemployment Insurance: Role as Safety Net for Low-Wage Workers Is Limited. Washington, DC: United States General Accounting Office.
Gilbert Neil. 2002 Transformation of the Welfare State: The Silent Surrender of Public Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press.
Goodin Robert E., Bruce Headey, Ruud Muffels, and Henk-Jan Dirven. 1999 The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the Cambridge University Press.
Gottschalk Marie. 2000 The Shadow Welfare State: Labor Business and the Politics of Welfare in the United States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Graetz Michael J., and Jerry L. Mashaw. 1999 True Security: Rethinking American Social Insurance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Greenstein Robert, and Isaac Shapiro. 2003 The New Definitive Data on Income and Tax Trends. Washington, DC: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
Hacker Jacob S. 1997 The Road to Nowhere: The Genesis of President Clinton's Plan for Health Security. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hacker Jacob S. 2002 The Divided Welfare State: The Battle over Public and Private Social Benefits in the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hacker Jacob S. 2003Call It the Family Risk Factor.” New York Times. 11 January, A15.Google Scholar
Howard Christopher. 1997 The Hidden Welfare State: Tax Expenditures and Social Policy in the United States, Princeton Studies in American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Huber Evelyne, and John D. Stephens. 2001 Development and Crisis of the Welfare State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Immergut Ellen. 1992 Health Politics: Interests and Institution in Western Europe. New York: Cambridge University, Press.
Iversen Torben, and David Soskice. 2001An Asset Theory of Social Policy Preferences.” American Political Science Review 95 (4): 875–93.Google Scholar
Jacoby Melissa B., Teresa A. Sullivan, and Elizabeth Warren. 2001Rethinking the Debates over Health Care Financing: Evidence from the Bankruptcy Courts.” New York University Law Review 76: 375417.Google Scholar
Johnson Haynes, and David S. Broder. 1996 The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point. New York: Little, Brown.
Katz Michael B. 2001 The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Korpi Walter, and Joakim Palme. 2003New Politics and Class Politics in the Context of Austerity and Globalization: Welfare State Regress in 18 Countries, 1975–1995.” American Political Science Review 97 (3): 425–46.Google Scholar
Krehbiel Keith. 1998 Pivotal Politics: A Theory of US Lawmaking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kronick Richard, and Todd Gilmer. 1999Explaining the Decline in Health Insurance Coverage, 1979–1995.” Health Affairs 18: 3047.Google Scholar
Levy Denise Urias, and Sonya Michel. 2002More Can Be Less: Child Care and Welfare Reform in the United States.” In Child Care Policy at the Crossroads: Gender and Welfare State Restructuring, ed. Sonya Michel and Rianne Mahon. New York: Routledge.
Levy Jonah. 1999Vice into Virtue? Progressive Politics and Welfare Reform in Continental Europe.” Politics and Society: 27 (2): 239–73.Google Scholar
Lipsky Michael. 1980 Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russel Sage Foundation.
Lipsky Michael. 1984Bureaucratic Disentitlement in Social Welfare Programs.” Social Service Review 58: 327.Google Scholar
Lynch Julia. 2000The Age Orientation of Social Policy Regimes in OECD Countries.” Journal of Social Policy 30 (2): 411–36.Google Scholar
Marmor Theodore R. 2000 The Politics of Medicare. 2nd ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Marmor Theodore R., Jerry L. Mashaw, and Philip L. Harvey. 1990 America's Misunderstood Welfare State: Persistent Myths, Enduring Realities. New York: Basic Books.
Medoff James L., and Michael Calabrese. 2000 The Impact of Labor Market Trends of Health and Pension Benefit Coverage and Inequality. Center for National Policy. Washington, DC.
Mettler Suzanne B., and Andrew Milstein. 2003A Sense of the State: Tracking the Role of the American Administrative State in Citizens' Lives Over Time.” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwestern Political Science Association, Chicago.
Mettler Suzanne, and Joe Soss. N.d. “Beyond Representation: Tracing the Consequences of Public Policy for Democratic Citizenship.” Perspectives on Politics. Forthcoming.
Moene Karl Ove, and Michael Wallerstein. 2001Inequality, Social Insurance, and Redistribution.” American Political Science Review 95 (4): 859–74.Google Scholar
Moffitt Robert, and Peter Gottschalk. 2002Trends in the Transitory Variance of Earnings in the United States.” Economic Journal 112 (March): C68–73.Google Scholar
Moon Marilyn. 1993 Medicare Now and in the Future. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.
Moss David A. 2002 When All Else Fails: Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Orloff Ann Shola. 1993 The Politics of Pensions: A Comparative Analysis of Britain, Canada, and the United States, 1880–1940. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Orzag Peter R. 2000 Raising the Amount That Can Be Contributed to Roth IRAs: The Dangers in the Short Run and the Long Run. Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorites.
Park Edwin, and Leighton Ku. 2001 Administration Medicaid and SCHIP Waiver Policy Encourages States to Scale Back Benefits Significantly and Increase Cost-Sharing for Low Income Beneficiaries. Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Peterson Paul E. 1981 City Limits. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pierce Brooks. 1998 Compensation Inequality. Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Pierson Paul. 1993When Effect Becomes Cause: Policy Feedback and Political Change.” World Politics 45 (4): 595628.Google Scholar
Pierson Paul. 1994 Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher, and the Politics of Retrenchment. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Pierson Paul. 1996The New Politics of the Welfare State.” World Politics 48 (2): 143–79.Google Scholar
Pierson Paul. 2000Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics.” American Political Science Review 94 (2): 251–67.Google Scholar
Pierson Paul, ed. 2001 The New Politics of the Welfare State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pierson Paul. 2002A Quiet Revolution? Long-Term Processes and Welfare State Restructuring.” Presented at Transforming the Democratic Balance among State, Market and Society: Comparative Perspectives on France and the Developed Democracies, Cambridge, Mass.
Pierson Paul. 2004 Politics in Time. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Forthcoming.
Rae Douglas W. 1975The Limits of Consensual Decision.” American Political Science Review 63: 1270–98.Google Scholar
Rein Martin, and Eskil Wandensjö, eds. 1997 Enterprise and the Welfare State. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
Riker William. 1980Implications from the Disequilibrium of Majority Rule for the Study of Institutions.” American Political Science Review 774: 432–46.Google Scholar
Schickler Eric. 2001 Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation in the U.S. Congress. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Scruggs Lyle, and James P. Allan. 2003Dynamics of Welfare State Regime Change 1971–2002.” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia.
Sheils John, and Randall Haught. 2004The Cost of Tax-Exempt Health Benefits in 2004.” Health Affairs, Web Exclusive, February.Google Scholar
Shepsle Kenneth. 1986Institutional Equilibria and Equilibrium Institutions.” In Herbert F. Weisberg, ed. Political Science: The Science of Politics. New York: Algora Publishing.
Skocpol Theda. 1996 Boomerang: Clinton's Health Security Effort and the Turn against Government in U.S. Politics. New York: W. W. Norton.
Skocpol Theda. 2000 The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy. New York: W. W. Norton.
Smeeding Timothy. 2002 Globalization, Inequality and the Rich Countries of the G-20: Evidence from the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS). Syracuse, NY: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.
Soss Joe. 2000 Unwanted Claims: The Politics of Participation in the U.S. Welfare System. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Stetson Dorothy McBride, and Amy G. Mazur, eds. 1995 Comparative State Feminism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Swank Duane. 2001Political Institutions and Welfare-State Restructuring: The Impact of Institutions on Social Policy Change in Developed Democracies.” In The New Politics of the Welfare State, ed. P. Pierson. New York: Oxford University Press.
Teles Steven M. 1998The Dialectics of Trust: Ideas, Finance, and Pension Privatization in the U.S. and U.K.” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. New York, NY.
Teles Steven M. Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics. Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press.
Thelen Kathleen. 2003How Institutions Evolve: Insights from Comparative-Historical Analysis.” In Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences, ed. J. Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschemeyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Titmuss Richard M. 1976 Essays on “The Welfare State.” 3rd ed. London: Allen & Unwin.
Toner Robin. 1995Of Touching Third Rails and Tackling Medicare.” New York Times, 21.Google Scholar
Tsebelis George. 1995 Decision Making in Political Systems: Veto Players in Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, Multicameralism and Multipartyism. British Journal of Political Science 25: 289325.Google Scholar
Tullock Gordon. 1981Why So Much Stability?Public Choice 37: 189202.Google Scholar
U.S Census Bureau. 1999 Statistical Abstract of the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. GPO.
Venti Steven F., and David A. Wise. 1997The Wealth of Cohorts: Retirement Savings and the Changing Assets of Older Americans.” In Public Policy toward Pensions, ed. S. J. Schieber and J. B. Shoven. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Warren Elizabeth. 2003What Is a Women's Issue? Bankruptcy, Commercial Law, and Other Gender-Neutral Topics.” Harvard Women's Law Journal 25: 1956.Google Scholar
Warren Elizabeth, and Amelia Warren Tyagi. 2003 The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke (with Surprising Solutions That Will Change Our Children's Futures). New York: Basic Books.
Weaver R. Kent. 1996Deficits and Devolution in the 104th Congress.” Publius 26 (3): 4586.Google Scholar
Weaver R. Kent. 1998The Politics of Pensions: Lessons from Abroad.” In Framing the Social Security Debate, ed. R. Douglas Arnold. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Weaver R. Kent. 2000 Ending Welfare as We Know It. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
White Michelle J. 2003Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in the U.S.” Presented at The Economics of Consumer Credit: European Experience and Lessons from the US, May, at European University Institute, Florence, Italy.
Wolff Edward. 2002 Top Heavy: A Study of Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America. New York: Twentieth Century Fund.
Zedlewski Sheila R. 2002 Are Shrinking Caseloads Always A Good Thing? Washington, DC: Urban Institute.
Submit a response


No Comments have been published for this article.