Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thoughts on Social Welfare: Contrasting Europe and American Historical Foundations

Copyright © 2004 José Cossa

Social welfare state is an ideal model in which the state provides for the welfare of all its citizens. All Countries that advocate for a welfare state have the common objectives of provision and protection. According to Mary Beals the what and why of public welfare policy are to protect, regulate, encourage, assist, and hurt no one. Christine George (my former professor at Loyola University Chicago) defines social welfare policy as “any policy that affects the well-being of people… those things that used to be the responsibility of the family, civil society, and the church.” Both Western European countries and the USA exhibit these characteristics in their perception and reality of the fundamental function of the welfare state; however, historically they differ in who runs social welfare and whom it really benefits. To echo the power issue in social welfare, which I see as one major determinant of who benefits, Mary Beals establishes two basic questions when dealing with social welfare state: (1) how should we be governed (who holds the power and who makes policy)? And, (2) what should government do (what is the scope and purpose of government)?

The answers to questions of power (who runs social welfare?) and function (who benefits?) lead to an understanding of the baseline difference between the development of the social welfare state in the USA and Western European countries. According to Skocpol, some scholars argue that when measured against Western countries’ patterns of development of social welfare, the USA is considered a “welfare state laggard” and incomplete “because it did not establish nationwide social insurance until 1935 and because it never has established fully national or comprehensive social programs along European lines;” however, Skocpol dismisses this comparison as being illegitimate, reductionistic, and myopic (my own terms). She calls for an understanding of the historical context that led the USA to make the decisions it took as to how welfare was to be structured, who was to run it, and who to benefit. Here, in the historical context, lies the core distinction of Paternalist versus Maternalist welfare states.

One exception in the development of the USA welfare state is the fact that the USA opted at establishing an orientation towards a Maternalist welfare state by putting more emphasis on compensation and provision for women and children, although not neglecting men. This distinction, in gender-age orientation, between Europe and the USA was coupled with the fact that power was not in the hands of aristocrats of the country in a political and legal way (this I say because aristocrats have influence over government agencies even when not explicitly given power to call for decisions of policy), but power was both in the hands of the government and state legislators, a fact that sometimes caused conflict between the two entities and could not be eliminated because there was constitutional provision for legal legislators to defile government rulings on policy laws. This would not happen in Europe because the aristocrats were the ruling body and they passed laws that they thought were “for the good of the working class” and the latter had no representation to advocate for its rights.

One example of the above scenario is the fact that female-dominated public agencies in a democratized and decentralized USA could advocate for the rights of women and children because the women representing these agencies, for the most part, knew better what women and children’s plights were. In contrast, in Western European countries where the predominant form of government was traditional monarchy did not allow for any state that would depart from its paternalist ethos – Men were the ruling gender, even where the monarch was a woman, and the male aristocrats were the guardians of all socio-political affairs.

Another example is the 1935 institutionalization of the unemployment insurance as a federal-state system, but with individual states left free to decide terms of eligibility and benefits as well as tax collection from workers. This led to an uneven taxation and unemployment benefits across the states. Also, unlike in Europe, there was no evidence of a joining of social and economic policy in the USA.

These distinctive characteristics of early development in USA welfare state can still be seen today, yet Western European welfare states have changed from strict paternalism due to the various social movements and democratizations of societies worldwide. The core of the exclusiveness of the USA welfare state, distinguishing it from European national management of welfare, is still evident today even years after some programs were nationalized, i.e., old-age and other assistance programs originally established as federal programs under Social Security. Skocpol argues that the AFDC program remains decentralized and further posits, “US welfare remains, as always, both institutionally and symbolically separate from national economic management, on one hand, and from non-means-tested programs benefiting regularly employed citizens, on the other.”

Skocpol identifies the following theories that attempt to explain why the US is an exception to the standards of social welfare policy-making:
(1) Logic of industrialism approach posits, “all nation-states respond to the growth of cities and industries by creating public measures to help citizens cope with attendant social and economic dislocations.” Skocpol argues that the USA does not fit well in this theory because in spite of having been, before 1935, one of the world industrial leaders it delayed to institute public pensions and social insurance. According to Skocpol, this exception of the USA is reason to render this theory inadequate because it draws generalizations that lack a deeper scrutiny of socio-cultural aspects peculiar to each context.
(2) National value approach posits, “cultural conditions could either facilitate or delay action by a nation-state to promote social security, and cultural factors also influenced the shape and goals of new policies when they emerged.” Skocpol argues that the USA is an exception overlooked by this theory because the theory fails to notice and explain US civil war benefits or social policies for mothers and children. Along with the logic of industrialism theory, this theory downplays political struggles and debates.
(3) Welfare capitalism approach looks for “economically grounded splits between conservative and progressive capitalists as the way to explain social policy innovations.” Skocpol further states, “Proponents of this approach argue that US capitalists have been unusually able to use direct and indirect pressures to prevent governments at all levels from undertaking social welfare efforts that would reshape labor markets or interfere with the prerogatives or profits of private business.” Skocpol argues that although this theory helps to see the complementarities between public social policies and the labor-management practices of American corporations, one important characteristic of American policy-making and implementation is that it is caused by political processes rather than the will of capitalists because these have often opposed the establishment of public social policies.
(4) Social democratic or Political class struggle approach “underlines the relative weakness of US industrial unions and points to the complete absence of any labor-based political party in US democracy.” According to this approach US capitalists have pressurize government to prevent that it undertook social welfare efforts that would reshape markets or interfere with the interests of private business. The exception of the US is seen in the fact that the theory, although helpful to explain why the US has not developed a full-employment welfare state, overlooks the intricacy of US socio-political context that shaped social policy. Unlike most of Western Europe where the states are centralized and bureaucratized, the US exhibits a much more decentralized state and various interest groups play a role in shaping policy, i.e., groups advocating for gender, racial, and ethnic equality are among those that shape policy in the US since the formation of the republic.


To analyze welfare policy with fairness, I would consider the constructs of gender, equality, and equity as seen by those who engage in defining the boundaries of welfare distribution. Both schools presented in Orloff’s work are a representation of two opposed extremes that must undergo scrutiny in terms of what they value and what their agendas are; yet both are indispensable for the construction of a new paradigm from which to launch gender-equilibrated policies. A thorough understanding of the different mappings or paradigms of gender by policy-makers would be my starting point. This presupposes an understanding of the context, e.g., cultural, historical, geographical, and other sorts of context that informed the perceptions of policy-makers. One could only criticize what one knows or else the danger would be to create a new system that perpetuates the spirit of discrimination in the name of change and advocating for justice. My personal bias is that most policy critics neglect the hermeneutical approach to the study of policy before criticizing it as gendered or anything of that sort. I am not saying that hermeneutics brings a close to the problem of gender discrimination on policy, but it provides the analyst with a tool that is not so much one of negative reaction.

An example of gendered policy that I would take into account for analysis is the WIC (Women, Infants and Children). This is an example of a gendered policy, but not gendered as usually defined from a Feminist perspective. The policy focuses on a particular gender of adults, namely women, and explicitly discriminates against men who could be found in the same situation as the women entitled to the benefits it provides. If a man were unemployed or poor and a single father, he would not be entitled for benefits on the basis of gender and not social conditions.

The other example is the two tier system constituted by Social Insurance (SI) and Public Assistance (PA). SI is a system benefiting males, the rules are very clear, there are higher benefits, and no stigma attached (tied to paid work); while, on the other hand, PA is a female system, rules necessitate more visiting, has lower benefits, has stigma attached because it is more like a handout, and it’s family tied (usually women and children).
Social welfare is often perceived as a body of policies and programs aimed at aiding the poor and seldom perceived as policies and programs that either transfer income or provide services to individuals to improve the quality of their lives (Rom). American social welfare policies system is an incremental, fragmented, progressive, and hierarchical: It is incremental because new issues and modalities of benefits are added periodically; it is fragmented because (a) the implementation differs from state-to-state as individual states are left free to decide terms of eligibility and benefits as well as tax collection and (b) the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government are competitive amongst themselves and against interest groups, and state and federal governments each attempt to gain control over health and welfare programs while at the same time attempting to shift burdens to the other party; it is progressive because it opens itself for further definitions and understandings of social problems and solutions (incrimentalism can only exist because of this progressive nature); it is hierarchical because most of its entitlement is in view of social status and aims at elevating the fate of the underprivileged, to day this is done through workfare.

Social welfare is also characterized by a complex mix of Private and public partnerships. This is undergoing several scrutinies and critiques because of what the main question of cost of service if welfare is in the hands of privates versus in purely public hands. Today the government sponsors many programs and some merging is occurring in terms of shared cost with private charities, e.g., Catholic Charity and others.

Why learn anything about Social Welfare System? I think everyone needs to learn about it because it may be of benefit for oneself or one can use his/her knowledge to help others find help within the system. For example, I suspect that there are many women who don’t know that in Illinois all pregnant women and their children have the right to free medical aid through kidcare, whether they are American citizens or not, and their children have this right until they cease to be minors.

Rom argues that most government spending on health and welfare for the poor is channeled through just four programs, i.e., Medicaid, AFDC, SSI, and GI. There are several programs or subprograms and policies within these major categories presented by Rom and below I will list the programs and policies with short descriptions of a few:                                                
  • a.       Social Security: The Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Programs
  • b.      Medicare/Medicaid is a program that provides medical care to low-income persons who are aged, blind, disable (primarily, SSI recipients), or in families with dependent children (AFDC recipients) and certain other pregnant women and children. It is an entitlement program and the federal government and state government design and administer the program. The split of cost is based on federally established matching rate.
  • c.       Supplemental Security Income (SSI) was established to provide cash payments for elderly, blind, or disabled persons who are also poor.
  • d.      Unemployment Compensation
  • e.       Earned Entitlements for Railroad Employees           
  • f.       Trade Adjustment Assistance
  • g.      Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The aim is to provide support to needy children (and their guardians) when their principal wage earner is absent continuously, unemployed, incapacitated, or dead. Federal and state governments share responsibility for designing, financing, and administering AFDC.
  • h.      Child Support Enforcement Program
  • i.        Child Care
  • j.        Title XX Social Services Block Grant Program
  • k.      Child Protection, Foster Care and Adoption Assistance
  • l.        Social Welfare Programs in the Territories
  • m.    Tax Provisions Related to Retirement, Health, Poverty, Employment, Disability, and Other Social Issues
  • n.      The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation 
  • General Assistance programs are purely state efforts designed to provide cash and medical assistance to low-income individuals who are not eligible for Medicaid, AFDC, or SSI. They receive no federal funds.
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