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The social welfare system refers to “the whole set of modern social programs offering income maintenance in cases of unemployment, industrial accident, illness, forced retirement, loss of a family breadwinner, or extreme deprivation, as well as various sorts of educational, preventive, and regulatory programs” (Orloff 1993, pp. 4-5). President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, especially the Social Security Act of 1935, are regarded as the inauguration of the modern social welfare system in the United States. Social scientists and historians tend to have a much more expansive view of welfare than that put forth in the popular media, which associates welfare with certain types of aid to the poor. From the 1950s to the 2000s, scholars have been concerned with explaining both the origins of social welfare systems and the substantial variation in its form among advanced industrial countries.
The Emergence Of Welfare States
An early and influential approach to understanding the origins of welfare states argued they emerged as part of the “logic of industrialism.” That is, scholars such as Harold Wilensky and Clark Kerr, among others, stressed that complex societies require a modern social welfare system in order to ensure a healthy, well-trained workforce and care for retired workers. Scholars criticized this view on a number of grounds. For example, in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers (1992) Theda Skocpol noted that in some places welfare provisions predated industrialization. In addition, Skocpol and other scholars such as G0sta Esping-Anderson noted that the logic of industrialism approach failed to explain the variation among welfare state systems.
Another group of scholars emphasized the humanitarian or idealistic motives for the expansion of welfare programs in the 1960s. This perspective argued that President Lyndon B. Johnson and other proponents of the Great Society programs implemented these policies and programs in response to the needs of the poor and oppressed. In Regulating the Poor (1971) Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward criticized this view, emphasizing that political and economic elites were primarily concerned with controlling the poor, not helping them out of poverty. Through an historical discussion of early reform efforts in England and the New Deal era in the United States, Piven and Cloward noted that welfare relief expanded during times of crisis so as to quell social unrest and then was retracted after the crisis was averted.
Three Worlds Of Welfare Capitalism
Whether or not and to what extent elites could roll back welfare provisions depended, according to Esping-Anderson, on the strength of political class coalitions. In his Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (1990), Esping-Anderson argued modern welfare state systems emerged in response to the political class coalitions of workers and farmers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then welfare states expanded or contracted depending on the strength of the coalition of the working and middle classes. These political class coalitions sought state policies that enabled individuals to live outside the demands of the market, what Esping-Anderson termed decommodification. For example, workers have historically organized to demand unemployment compensation, pensions, health care, and other programs. These provisions enable individuals to exist without having to work. This improves the quality of life for workers and enables them to demand better work conditions from their employers.
Furthermore, welfare states in advanced capitalist countries display significant variation in the levels of decommodification each system provides for its citizenry. In fact, Esping-Anderson argued they can be grouped together into what he called three worlds of welfare capitalism: the conservative (e.g., Germany), the liberal (e.g., United States), and the social democratic (e.g., Sweden).
For example, in liberal welfare regimes, such as the United States, working class movements and parties have been historically weak. In these countries workers were unable to forge durable coalitions with farmers and later with the new middle classes. As a result, the welfare system in liberal regimes is relatively small and dualistic. That is, instead of a universal system where everyone benefits from welfare policies and programs, it creates two segments in society: one group receives benefits based on their tax contributions while a second group receives benefits regardless of whether or not they pay into the system. In the United States, social security and unemployment insurance are considered contributory entitlements. For most workers, a portion of each paycheck goes toward funding these programs. The second group of welfare recipients is comprised of those who receive aid without making a contribution. This type of aid is means-tested; that is, recipients have to demonstrate they qualify for relief and have to submit to government surveillance, else forfeiting the aid. In addition, in this dualistic system recipients of entitlements (e.g., Social Security) are not stigmatized while those who receive non-contributory aid (e.g., Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC]) are heavily stigmatized. This stigma is supposed to provide a disincentive to receiving aid. For Esping-Anderson decommodification in liberal welfare regimes is low.
In conservative welfare regimes, such as Germany, working class movements are stronger and successfully forge coalitions first with farmers and later with the middle class. However, all social policy is cast in the light of Catholic ideals of tradition and stability. Emphasis is placed on maintaining the traditional family, with a male breadwinner and female homemaker. Thus decommodifi-cation is higher than in liberal regimes; yet feminists have pointed out that conservative regimes maintain a subordinate role for women.
In social democratic welfare regimes, such as Sweden, working class movements are strong and successfully forge alliances with farmers and the middle class. Thus for Esping-Anderson decommodification is the highest in social democratic welfare regimes. In these countries, taxes are relatively high, and instead of a dualistic system, benefits are granted on a universal basis, thus preventing the negative consequences of dualism and assuring continued support from the middle classes.
Feminists such as Skocpol have criticized class-based explanations of welfare state systems for failing to take seriously the role of state managers in the production of social policy. Skocpol argued that class-based scholars have emphasized the role of working class (male) movements in provoking the rise of welfare states. As such, they have offered an explanation of the so-called paternal welfare state. Skocpol argued that in the United States a maternal-ist welfare state predated the paternalist one.
Skocpol found that the earliest efforts at social provision focused on taking care of Northern Civil War veterans in the late 1800s. This was an early and important form of old age pension. In addition, she traced the efforts of early feminists who played key roles in gaining pensions for women and policies that helped children in the early twentieth century. These feminists successfully influenced the creation of a welfare state that sought to protect soldiers and mothers.
Linda Gordon studied many of the same early feminists as Skocpol and offered important insights into maternalist welfare states and the origins of welfare in the United States. In Pitied but Not Entitled (1994) Gordon argued that feminists played key roles in agitating for and making governmental policy, noting that early welfare policies sought to reinforce traditional understandings of femininity, especially those that emphasized homemaking and caregiving. Thus the maternalist policies aimed at “protecting soldiers and mothers” were also paternalist, premised on the idea that men should work and women should be subordinate to them, taking care of the housework and the children. Moreover, Gordon demonstrated how welfare policies of the early twentieth century emphasized care for white women who were married with children. Single mothers and women of color were excluded from policies that were designed to complement the “family wage” earned by male husbands/workers. As such, the role of welfare aid was to help maintain the integrity of the traditional white family without usurping the role of male breadwinner. However, a substantial number of male workers had a very hard time earning enough money to support their families, a situation even more pronounced for single mothers.
In addition, Gordon maintained that New Deal welfare policies did more to help the nonpoor than the poor. Policy makers restricted the kinds of jobs that could contribute to Social Security and unemployment insurance. Due to the kinds of jobs they had, such as in agriculture or as domestic help, most women and blacks, for example, were not eligible for these benefits. This gendered and racialized nature of early welfare policies in part reflected the power of southern elites who influenced social policy so as to maintain a loose agricultural labor market in the South. As a result of concerted political behavior of southern elites, the New Deal welfare policies were enacted unevenly in the South, if they were enacted at all. In the South, welfare provisions were meager, while in the industrialized North they were more generous.
This point is expanded upon by Jill Quadagno, who studied welfare policies from the New Deal through President Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s. In The Color of Welfare (1994), Quadagno showed how the Great Society programs sought to incorporate blacks and other minorities into the welfare state for the first time. However, such efforts resulted in a conservative backlash that pushed for a retrenchment of welfare to deny blacks an equal footing in society. This retrenchment, inaugurated by President Jimmy Carter, became a key platform of President Ronald Reagan, and was capped off by the signing of President Bill Clinton’s “End Welfare as We Know It” bill in 1996, which ended the U.S. government’s commitment to providing a safety net for the poor. The 1996 welfare reform bill transformed the pivotal AFDC program into TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), premised on the belief that instead of aid the government should provide inducements to work. Under these so-called workfare programs, there is a lifetime limit of five years of support, recipients must find work within two years or perform free community service, unmarried mothers must identify fathers to receive aid, and immigrants as well as unmarried teen parents are denied access to welfare programs.
- Esping-Anderson, Gosta. 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Gordon, Linda. 1994. Pitied but Not Entitled. New York: Free Press.
- Orloff, Ann. 1993. The Politics of Pensions. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Piven, Frances Fox, and Richard Cloward. 1971. Regulating the Poor. New York: Vintage Books.
- Quadagno, Jill. 1994. The Color of Welfare. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Skocpol, Theda. 1992. Protecting Soldiers and Mothers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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