For Their Own Good

Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States

by Theda Skocpol
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 714 pp., $34.95

Recollections of the New Deal: When the People Mattered

by Thomas H. Eliot, edited and with an introduction by John Kenneth Galbraith
Northeastern University Press, 169 pp., $24.95

If President Clinton’s health care reform proposal becomes law in anything like the form he has proposed, it will be the first genuinely universal system of social insurance in American history, and a striking departure from all previous efforts to build and expand the welfare state. For until now, virtually all American social welfare policies have taken one of two quite different forms, separate and unequal.

One consists of programs designed for people who have, in theory, earned their benefits, either because of special service to society, as with military veterans, or because they (or their employers) have contributed to the funds from which they draw when they grow old or lose their jobs. The other form consists of programs designed for people whose major claim to benefits is their apparent need for them, people who seem in some special position of dependency that requires a social response. Those programs are what most Americans call “welfare”: aid to families with dependent children, food stamps, and other forms of public assistance to the poor.

During much of the twentieth century at least, programs for those who have “earned” their benefits have been relatively generous and politically unassailable. Programs for those who simply “need” their benefits have been penurious and politically vulnerable. An unacknowledged result of this distinction is that the largest and most reliable benefits of the welfare state go primarily to men; the paltriest and least reliable go disproportionately to women.

How do we explain a welfare system in which those who most need assistance receive it grudgingly and inadequately while those who least need it receive it freely and relatively lavishly? No other major industrial nation is so stingy or so punitive in providing benefits to its citizens. Why has the United States, to use a term long popular among scholars in this field, been such a “laggard” nation?

Theda Skocpol, a Harvard sociologist long involved in trying to explain why states evolve in the way they do, offers a challenging new answer to this old question in an impressive and intelligent study of the history of American social policy from the end of the Civil War to the eve of the Great Depression. (A second volume will continue the story into the New Deal and beyond.) On the one hand, Skocpol challenges the conventional view that the United States was consistently behind Europe in developing social welfare programs, and that it took the New Deal to introduce any important social security system. There were, in fact, extensive programs of public assistance and important constituencies fighting to expand them throughout the half-century she chronicles. On the other hand, she makes clear, the result of this fifty years of experimentation was a feeble, inadequate welfare system, one in which damaging and invidious distinctions were already deeply embedded and ready to afflict future generations of reformers.

Skocpol is one of a group of social scientists who, for the last decade or so, have been trying to reconceive the role of…

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