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The American Welfare State in Comparative Perspective: Reflections on Alberto Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser, Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 May 2006

Jonas Pontusson
Princeton University (


Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference. By Alberto Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 262 pages. $55.00 cloth

Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser's recent book, Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe, exemplifies the recent incursion of economists into the domains of political science and sociology. In thinking about welfare states, economists have traditionally been interested in their effects on the distribution of income and, above all, their implications for efficiency and growth. Alesina and Glaeser instead set out to explain why “Americans are much less willing to redistribute from the rich to the poor than Europeans” (2) or, in other words, why the American welfare state is so small by comparison to European welfare states. This, then, is a book about American exceptionalism in the realm of social policy, but Alesina and Glaeser's discussion also addresses the general problem of accounting for cross-national variation in the public provision of social welfare. Their project is to provide an account of the exceptional nature of the American welfare state that is consistent with and sheds light on differences among other welfare states as well. This makes for an audacious book that deserves critical scrutiny.Jonas Pontusson is Professor of Politics at Princeton University ( This essay was written while I was a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. I am most grateful to the foundation for its support. For comments on previous drafts, I am grateful to Ira Katznelson, Mary O'Sullivan, and Kenneth Sokoloff.

© 2006 American Political Science Association

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