The United States in Comparative Perspective
The first reading "Understanding American Social Politics" by Weir is mainly concerned with U.S. social policies, including welfare, and how they relate on an international scale. Weir begins by pointing out that of all countries today, the U.S. probably has the best means to promote a sound social policy. Whereas the U.S. is above average in educational expenditures, it falls short of most countries in terms of health care and welfare. Yet, as Weir points out, U.S. social policies are still under attack from politicians.
After a brief introduction, Weir launches into the historical background behind social policies. Policies prior to the 1930s included support for public education and generous Civil War vet benefits, but the U.S. wasn't interested in the European influenced welfare systems. Then the Social Security Act of 1935 established a basic framework for social insurance and public assistance programs, including unemployment insurance, public assistance, and old-age insurance. Based off of this 1935 framework, the system of social security emerged and developed into a program that was reasonably generous to retired people.
Public contention regarding welfare aroused in the 1960s with the "War on Poverty" and the U.S. effort to create a "Great Society." In short, core welfare policies were much slower to develop in the U.S. than in Europe, with key components (national health care) never instituted.
Generally, U.S. social programs are far behind those of Western Europe, even though the U.S. has a healthy economy as well as the financial means to support a more encompassing program.
The reasoning behind the slow and limited development of U.S. social policies is a topic of debate. General deductions based on national values do not adequately account for discrepancies between U.S. and Western European social policies. Although an examination of political class struggles throughout the twentieth century American society explains much of our social system, it fails in many key time periods. Thus, for a full explanation of the landscape of U.S. social policies, one must examine the relation between class struggles as well as an institutional-political process perspective. This basically accounts for the changing landscape of political processes and how they impacted social policy.
Weir then steps through the history of the U.S., drawing parallels between the political structure of the time and resulting social policies. For instance, he points out that understanding southern social policies in the early twentieth century hinges on understanding the American political institution of the time. Racist southerners pushing for southern cotton agriculture did not hold the mainstream American political outlook, yet they had quite a bit of influence through various Congressional party systems.
Much like Weir described social policies based on multiple factors, Esping also indicates that social policies need to be analyzed using several variables.
Esping first describes that social policies are the result of a conglomeration of interactive forces. They include the influence held by working class politics as well as structural changes in U.S. history. For the most part, Esping describes a shift in U.S. political structure from a rural economy to a middle class society. Furthermore, Esping describes how historical policies shape and influence present social decisions. Institutionalization carries much weight in terms of political behavior, and as Esping describes, this is applicable to the social policy scene.
In contrast, Esping describes the nature of welfare backlashes. The author states that contrary to popular belief, tax revolts and other social contention is based on the class character of a welfare state. In this way, Esping claims that middle class welfare states (Scandinavia, Germany) form middle class influenced social programs. This type of approach, claims Esping, not only describes the historical context for social policies, but also future prospects.
1. In order to fully understand American social policies throughout history, what does Weir insist on examining?
2. With a prosperous economy and financial means, how does the U.S. rank in social policies?
3. With this information regarding how social systems are developed, what is the best way to promote a more encompassing social system here in the U.S.?