Review Essay: America’s Welfare Parastate by Jacob Hacker

jacob-hacker-1America’s Welfare Parastate

by Jacob S. Hacker, Yale University

In the last twenty years, students of U.S. social policy have developed a distinctive new picture of the American “welfare state”—the complex of social policies designed to reduce economic hardship and insure against economic risk. Prior to this revisionist work, the American welfare state was seen mostly as a pale and late-arriving imitation of the cradle-to-grave public protections found in other rich democracies. How was it, scholars asked, that a country as rich as the United States could have such generally anemic social policies? The answers varied, fingering the United States’ anti-statist political culture or fragmented political institutions, the powerful role of racial subjugation, or the relative weakness of organized labor in a business-dominated polity. But the main question was a modified version of Werner Sombart’s famous query, “Why is there no big public welfare state in the United States?”

Since the mid-1990s, however, the focus of scholarship has shifted away from the empty spaces toward the occupied territories. A broad array of researchers have sought to identify and explain the policies and dynamics distinctively present in U.S. social policy. The titles alone convey the shifting focus: The Hidden Welfare State (1997), The Shadow Welfare State (2000), The Delegated Welfare State(2011), The Submerged State (2011), and my own The Divided Welfare State (2002). 2 In these varied contributions, familiar questions about American policy penuriousness cede ground to inquiries centered on the unusual and often little-appreciated ways in which the United States furnishes social benefits. Look at what government actually does, these works suggest, and you see a system of social provision that is much bigger, messier, less equalizing, and less reflective of the preferences of the political left than prior scholarship indicated.

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Perspectives on Politics / Volume 14, Issue 3 / September 2016, pp. 777-783