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Journal of Policy History 17.1 (2005) 125-154

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Bringing the Welfare State Back In:

The Promise (and Perils) of the New Social Welfare History

Yale University

The welfare state—the complex of policies that, in one form or another, all rich democracies have adopted to ameliorate destitution and provide valued social goods and services—is an increasingly central subject in the study of American history and politics. The past decade has unleashed a veritable tidal wave of books on the topic, including, from historians, Alice Kessler-Harris's In Pursuit of Equity and Michael Katz's The Price of Citizenship, and, from political scientists, Robert Lieberman's Shifting the Color Line and Peter Swenson's Capitalists Against Markets.1 Journals ranging from the American Historical Review to Political Science Quarterly (and, with less regularity, even the American Political Science Review)now routinely feature analyses of U.S. social policy. And going back just a few years more, the early 1990s saw the publication of several influential works on the subject, notably Paul Pierson's Dismantling the Welfare State? and Theda Skocpol's Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, each of which won major book prizes in political science.2 If any moment deserves to be seen as a heady time for writing on the American welfare state, this is it.

As natural as this state of affairs has come to be seen, it was not always so. Writing in 1991, the historian Edward Berkowitz lamented that the American welfare state "commands little attention from today's students, who view it as a confusing, highly technical, and dry subject that cannot compete with the exploits, often heroic, of the blacks and women who have emerged as major figures in the history classroom over the course of the last twenty years."3 Although Berkowitz was writing of historians, his complaint applied more broadly. Indeed, what is striking in retrospect— [End Page 125] not to mention, in light of the huge share of the economy the welfare state represents, even in its famously stingy U.S. incarnation—is precisely how few major works concerned themselves with the American welfare state in the years before Berkowitz's words were penned. Today, however, Berkowitz's complaint rings anachronistic: no current observer would say that students of American public affairs bypass social welfare policy.

The explanation for this reversal is at once simple and complex. The simple reason concerns the world outside the academy. Once protected by a real, if uneasy, postwar consensus, the welfare state came under increasing political and economic strain in the 1980s and 1990s. In the process, it has also become the kind of hot, front-page news topic that academics, for all their avowed eschewal of flashy subjects, love to wade into. At the same time, the tenor of policy debates grew sharply more conservative, making it ever harder to accept the once-common conceit that the United States was simply a "laggard" on a universal path toward expanded state responsibility. What master narrative replaced this well-worn story line was, of course, anything but obvious. But at the very least, the welfare state suddenly seemed open to fresh approaches.

The less obvious reason for increased interest in the welfare state concerns a set of shifts within the academic world itself. The birth of policy history as a self-conscious field, the increasing prominence of the political science subfield of "American political development," the rise of "institutional political history," and the increasing sophistication of scholarship on gender and race—all were critical spurs to the explosion of interest in welfare state development. But perhaps most important, scholars simply woke up to a fact so obvious that it was frequently overlooked: the welfare state is a central element of modern society and politics. The seminal trigger for this new wave of analysis was Gøsta Esping-Andersen's landmark sociological study, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism.4 Esping-Andersen replaced the common unilinear conception of welfare state development with a...