Arnold Kling  

The U.S. Welfare State

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I was invited to contribute to a British booklet called Small State, Big Society. Feeling contrarian, I refused to describe the U.S. as a small state. Instead, I wrote,


The United States has a surprisingly large welfare state. The American tradition includes a strong element of pragmatism and a distrust for government. Government programs tend to emerge as add-ons to civil society, rather than following a grand plan. Our welfare state is best understood as an emergent phenomenon, rather than as the product of coherent design. Its advantages and disadvantages reflect his haphazard emergence.

My thinking was heavily influenced by Christopher Howard's The Welfare State Nobody Knows.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Lori writes:

At the risk of being contracontrarian, while agreeing that the United States has a large welfare state, I contend that America's welfare state is not an emergent phenomenon, and has been designed to produce very specific outcomes. While it is true that the various features of America's safety net have been cobbled together at various points in history to address various crises, there is a core set of principles that are forever inviolate. One is that the 18-64 age group is an explicitly unentitled class. Also common to all chapters of the American benefits story is the assumption that working-age adults fall into exactly two categories, those being the gainfully employed and the unemployable. The elephant in the room is the ever-increasing share of jobs-on-offer that are temp or part-time or both. Another design feature common to all aid programs is high entry and exit costs. The rules are configured so that getting on aid and getting off aid are both technically impossible. This filters out of the process anyone who takes rules at face value.

Loof writes:

The US is a gross state with less welfare than other federal states being absolutely exceptional as a warfare state. American economists who incessantly bitch about the size of the welfare state and skirt the issue of the grotesque warfare state may not be fork-tongued but they’re certainly two-faced – and US libertarians should be red in both faces: appearing to implicitly fawn the rich in war profiteering at taxpayers expense, while talking antiwar; and, explicitly denying the poor government benefits, while hyping serf wages. Lots of double thinking and double dealing with libertarians about society, I believe.

mike shupp writes:

If you're going to discuss the emergence of the modern welfare state, I think you have to point to the existence of a demographic state quite different from anything in previous history. We expect almost all children to live to adulthood today; as late as 1900 most families had a child or two or three die from disease or accident. We also expect elderly folk to live past retirement for some reasonable span, often decades, often while suffering from dementia or simple age-related disability. And, with the diminishment of traditional family and social supports (churches and charities), coupled with increasing living standards, we have an ever larger population in or poised just above poverty.

The demographic transistion is still going in much of the world, even in nations such as our own, and adjustments in our social structure are still on going as well. Equally so, our political rhetoric and traditions lag behind reality. Quite a lot of conservative-libertarian resentment of the welfare becomes intelligible if one begins with the view that "bastards" OUGHT to suffer for their ignominious birth, and that old folks OUGHT to drop dead somewhere in their 60's. And a lot of liberal rhetoric also makes sense only if one assumes relative handfuls of needy people require public assistance, rather than most people at some point.

I don't think any existing society has really gotten the bugs out of their welfare state; I don't think any of them will during this century. Increased medical costs and improving longevity are going to choke us all to death.

Lori writes:

Increased lifespan may be offset by later retirement. The question then becomes, what is the future of age discrimination and recourse against it, as well as the availability of employment for people who now would be considered of retirement age.

A lot of pro-fertility types (I call then 'natal nationalists') parrot the trope about a smaller working-age population having to support a larger retiree population. I'm more worried about whether the GDP, not the workforce, will be sufficient to my possible retirement needs. Labor is losing ground to capital. A larger workforce once I'm retired just means even more competition over what's left of the jobs.

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