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Bringing the Welfare State Back In: The Promise (and Perils) of the New Social Welfare History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 April 2009

Jacob S. Hacker
Yale University


The welfare state—the complex of policies that, in one form or another, all rich democracies have adopted to ameliorate destitution and provide valued social goods and services—is an increasingly central subject in the study of American history and politics. The past decade has unleashed a veritable tidal wave of books on the topic, including, from historians, Alice Kessler-Harris's In Pursuit of Equity and Michael Katz's The Price of Citizenship, and, from political scientists, Robert Lieberman's Shifting the Color Line and Peter Swenson's Capitalists Against Markets. Journals ranging from the American Historical Review to Political Science Quarterly (and, with less regularity, even the American Political Science Review) now routinely feature analyses of U.S. social policy. And going back just a few years more, the early 1990s saw the publication of several influential works on the subject, notably Paul Pierson's Dismantling the Welfare State? and Theda Skocpol's Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, each of which won major book prizes in political science. If any moment deserves to be seen as a heady time for writing on the American welfare state, this is it.

Copyright © The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. 2005

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1. Kessler-Harris, Alice, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for EconomicCitizenship in 20th-Century America (Oxford, 2001)Google Scholar; Katz, Michael B., The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State (New York, 2001)Google Scholar; Lieberman, Robert, Shifting the Color Line (Cambridge, Mass., 1998)Google Scholar; Swenson, Peter, Capitalists Against Markets: The Making of Labor Markets and Welfare States in the United States and Sweden (New York, 2002).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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9. Davies and Derthick, “Race and Social Welfare Policy: The Social Security Act of 1935.”

10. Lieberman, Shifting the Color Line.

11. Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism.

12. See, for example, Mink, Gwendolyn, The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the Welfare State, 1917–1942 (Ithaca, 1995)Google Scholar; Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity; Gordon, Linda, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890–1935 (New York, 1994)Google Scholar; Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers; Mettler, Suzanne B., Dividing Citizens: Gender and Federalism in New Deal Public Policy (Ithaca, 1998).Google Scholar

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14. Gordon, Linda, ed., Women, the State, and Welfare (Madison, 1990).Google Scholar

15. Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity; Mettler, Dividing Citizens; Mink, The Wages of Motherhood.

16. See Orloff, Ann Shola, “Gender and the Social Rights Citizenship: The Comparative Analysis of Gender Relations and Welfare States,” American Sociological Review 58 (1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Stetson, Dorothy McBride and Mazur, Amy G., eds., Comparative State Feminism (Thousand Oaks, Calif., 1995).Google Scholar

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19. The main exponent of this view is Peter Swenson, whose work I will discuss shortly.

20. Mares, The Politics of Social Risk; Gordon, New Deals and Dead on Arrival.

21. It might be supposed that this is the same as saying that social policies are economically beneficial; yet it is not. Many policies that are good for economic growth have no organized defenders. Moreover, the fact that certain policies benefit business leaves open the critical historical question of whether capitalists were behind their creation. The powerful, and controversial, claim of the new business-power literature is that capitalists have a first-choice preference for key social programs before they are enacted.

22. Swenson, Capitalists Against Markets, 194.

23. On the distinction between structural and instrumental power, see Lindblom, Charles E., “The Market as Prison,” Journal of Politics 44, no. 2 (1982)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hacker, Jacob S. and Pierson, Paul, “Business Power and Social Policy: Employers and the Formation of the American Welfare State,” Politics and Society 30, no. 2 (2002).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24. Swenson, Capitalists Against Markets, 191–220.

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26. On the limits of a historical “snapshot” rather than a “moving picture,” see Pierson, Paul, Politics in Time (Princeton, 2004).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27. On the power conferred on business by America's decentralized federalism before the New Deal, see Robertson, David Brian, “The Bias of American Federalism: The Limits of Welfare State Development in the Progressive Era,” Journal of Policy History 1, no. 3 (1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The argument about the decline in business power during the New Deal is elaborated in Hacker and Pierson, “Business Power and Social Policy.”

28. The term is from Hacker, Jacob S., The Divided Welfare State: The Battle over Public and Private Social Benefits in the United States (Cambridge, 2002).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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32. Ibid. See also Burke, Thomas F., Lawyers, Lawsuits, and Legal Rights: The Battle over Litigation in American Society (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2002).Google Scholar

33. Katz, The Price of Citizenship.

34. Gordon, Dead on Arrival; Jacoby, Modern Manors; Klein, Jennifer L., For All These Rights: Business, Labor, and the Shaping of America's Public-Private Welfare State (Princeton, 2003)Google Scholar. For the more traditional narrative, see Brandes, Stuart D., American Welfare Capitalism, 1880–1940 (Chicago, 1970).Google Scholar

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36. Hacker, The Divided Welfare State, 7.

37. Howard, Christopher, “Is the American Welfare State Unusually Small?PS: Political Science and Politics 36, no. 3 (2003): 415.Google Scholar

38. Hacker, The Divided Welfare State, 36–38.

39. Hacker, Jacob S., “Privatizing Risk without Privatizing the Welfare State: The Hidden Politics of Social Policy Retrenchment in the United States,” American Political Science Review 98, no. 2 (2004): 251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

40. On the obstacles to scholarly progress that conceptual disagreement creates, see Pierson, Paul, “Coping with Permanent Austerity: Welfare State Restructuring in Affluent Democracies,” in New Politics of the Welfare State, ed. Pierson, Paul (New York, 2001), 421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

41. At the extreme, they simply assume that the effects are the motives, as summed up in the influential statement of the economist George Stigler that the “announced goals of a policy are sometimes unrelated or perversely related to its actual effects, and the truly intended effects should be deduced from the actual effects.” Stigler, George J., The Citizen and the State (Chicago, 1975), 140.Google Scholar

42. This argument is elaborated in Pierson, Paul, “The Limits of Design: Explaining Institutional Origins and Change,” Governance: An International Journal of Policy and Administration 13, no. 4 (2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. To be sure, political scientists have long recognized the “law of unintended consequences.” But it is fair to say that they have shown little inclination to come up with systematic arguments about when and why we should expect unanticipated effects. Nonetheless, based on what we know about political action, it is possible to identify at least two critical factors that are likely to influence the probability of unforeseen consequences. First, unintended effects are most likely when policies are highly complex—interacting with many different dimensions of society simultaneously—for in these circumstances the limits of humans' ability to calculate multiple and interactive effects and the possibility of emergent “system effects” loom large. Jervis, Robert, “Complexity and the Analysis of Political and Social Life,” Political Science Quarterly 112, no. 4 (19971998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Second, unintended effects are more likely to the extent that policymakers are focused on the near-term future (to use economics lingo, their “time horizons” are short), for in these circumstances actors are likely to pay little attention to the potential longterm or interactive elements of their policies. Needless to say, social welfare policies are often characterized by the first feature, and in many cases, especially when passed to respond to pressing social needs, the second as well.

43. One of the benefits of a substantial and intensively investigated archival record is that it makes it possible to trace the strategic behavior of actors over time. In many cases, one can actually document private acknowledgments that public positions represent a strategic accommodation to political realities.

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46. Weir, Margaret, Orloff, Ann Shola, and Skocpol, Theda, “Introduction: Understanding American Social Policies,” in The Politics of Social Policy in the United States (Princeton, 1988), 9.Google Scholar

47. The logic of counterfactuals, and its relation to historical and cross-national comparison, is discussed further in Hacker, Jacob S., “Learning from Defeat? Political Analysis and the Failure of Health Care Reform in the United States,” British Journal of Political Science 30 (2000)Google Scholar. See also Fearon, James D., “Couterfactuals and Hypothesis Testing in Political Sciences,” World Politics 43, no. 2 (1991).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

48. Amenta, Edwin, Bold Relief: Institutional Politics and the Origins of Modern American Social Policy (Princeton, 1998)Google Scholar; Amenta, Edwin, “Making the Most of a Case Study: Theories of the Welfare State and the American Experience,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 32, no. 1–2 (1991).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

49. Hacker, The Divided Welfare State.

50. Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers; Pierson, Dismantling the Welfare State?; Pierson, Paul, “When Effect Becomes Cause: Policy Feedback and Political Change,” World Politics 45, no. 4 (1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics,” American Political Science Review 94, no. 2 (2000).

51. Pierson, “When Effect Becomes Cause: Policy Feedback and Political Change”; idem, “Not Just What, but When: Timing and Sequence in Political Processes,” Studies in American Political Development 14, no. 1 (2000).

52. Pierson, Dismantling the Welfare State?

53. Hacker, The Divided Welfare State, 52–58.

54. Campbell, Andrea Louise, How Policies Make Citizens: Senior Political Activism and the American Welfare State (Princeton, 2003).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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56. Teles, Steven M., Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (Lawrence, Kan., 1996).Google Scholar

57. Pierson, Politics in Time.

58. Thelen, Kathleen, “Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Politics,” Annual Review of Political Science 2 (1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schickler, Eric, Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation in the U.S. Congress (Princeton, 2001).Google Scholar

59. Hacker, “Privatizing Risk without Privatizing the Welfare State.”

60. Of course, drift can and does run in the opposite direction—that is, toward expansion. The proliferating use of disability insurance as a means of early retirement in Europe is a powerful contemporary example.

61. Hacker, Jacob S., The Road to Nowhere: The Genesis of President Clinton's Plan for Health Security (Princeton, 1997)Google Scholar; Skocpol, Theda, Boomerang: Clinton's Health Security Effort and the Turn against Government in U.S. Politics (New York, 1996).Google Scholar

62. As Derthick writes, in a statement as true today as when she penned it, “Much of the scholarly literature that analyzes policymaking focused on ‘leading’ or controversial cases—moments of crisis or innovation that are intrinsically interesting and undoubtedly important, but not in themselves typical. Policymaking is a compound of exciting innovative events … and not-so-exciting routines that are performed without much widespread mobilization, intense conflict, or much awareness of what is going on except among the involved few.” Derthick, Policymaking for Social Security, 9.