The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy

The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy

by Theda Skocpol

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An eye-opening look at how America’s social policy has been hijacked by a rhetoric of extremes.
In the opening pages of this powerful examination of American politics, Theda Skocpol reveals a curious pattern: Our politicians argue over programs for the very poor or tax cuts for the very rich, and they worry over the precarious security of our


An eye-opening look at how America’s social policy has been hijacked by a rhetoric of extremes.
In the opening pages of this powerful examination of American politics, Theda Skocpol reveals a curious pattern: Our politicians argue over programs for the very poor or tax cuts for the very rich, and they worry over the precarious security of our longer-living grandparents and the educational neglect and corresponding bleak future of our children. But, with the spotlight on the youngest, the oldest, the richest, and the poorest, rarely do we find policies concerned with average working men and women of modest means, those the author terms the "missing middle." Skocpol draws us into the history of this disturbing trend and reveals the repercussions of the increasingly simplistic and moralistic stands being taken by our politicians. Taking lessons from the root causes of this shift, she presents a compelling case for family-oriented populism and identifies the bold reforms needed to revitalize American democracy.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hard-working middle-class families have not fared nearly as well as the wealthy in the booming '90s. Harvard sociologist Skocpol has written an astute book that offers a diagnosis of the problem and a prescription for correcting what she convincingly characterizes as the unconscionable treatment of the middle class. The diagnosis implicates both ends of America's political spectrum and casts the press as a willing accomplice. The study is well documented with an array of provocative facts that highlight the urgency of her case. For instance, statistics on the percentage of American children living in poverty relative to other industrialized nations are startling. In a sophisticated analysis, Skocpol argues that the conservative far right has, with malice aforethought, undermined the major social programs in America by limiting their benefits to a small percentage of the population, making them vulnerable to attack in budget battles, or, alternatively, by depicting programs like Social Security as creations of monolithic and powerful lobbies with narrow interests, such as the American Association of Retired Persons--when in fact, according to Skocpol, they represent a consensus of a broad range of Americans. In Skocpol's view, the left has retreated in the face of this strategy and failed to build the coalitions necessary to enact and maintain programs sufficiently broad-based to help working-class families. In her final chapter, Skocpol proposes programs that could end the damage caused by the neglect of working-class families, urging advocates of social support programs to go on the offensive with bold new proposals. This is a very smart book, and it is a pleasure to see its cogent arguments unfold. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
We fret over tax cuts to the rich and programs for the poor, young, and elderly. But, wonders Harvard professor Skocpol, what's to become of the "missing middle"--working parents of average means? Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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Chapter One

The Missing Middle

       "We'll put government back on the side of the hardworking middle-class families of America who think most of the help goes to those at the top of the ladder, some goes to the bottom, and no one speaks for them." With this bold promise, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas announced his run for the presidency in October of 1991. "Putting People First" became the watchword as Clinton and vice-presidential candidate Al Gore were nominated by the Democratic Party and waged their ultimately successful 1992 campaign. Bemoaning twelve years of Republican-dominated government rewarding "those who speculate in paper," while "the forgotten middle class worked harder for less money" and "the working poor had the door of opportunity slammed in their face," Clinton and Gore advocated a change of direction toward a federal government newly active on behalf of regular Americans—and especially working parents. "Putting our people first means honoring and rewarding those who work hard and play by the rules. It means recognizing that government doesn't raise children—people do."

    Economic growth with social equity and health care coverage for all Americans would be the top priorities, Clinton and Gore proclaimed. Welfare reform would be accompanied by job training and measures to ensure higher wages and enhanced social protections for all working families. Along with new incentives for market investments would come substantial public "investments" in community infrastructure, improved schools, and expanded access tohigher education. Shrinking the federal deficit would be a goal, but not at the expense of social improvements. Economic growth would be channeled by new regulations designed to reduce income disparities, discourage "outrageous executive pay," and make the rich "pay their fair share in taxes." Clinton and Gore also promised to break with old ways of doing politics. "Our political system failed us," they declared, vowing to transform a system "dominated by powerful interests" and "high-priced influence peddlers."

    Nearly a decade later, Americans can look back on not just one but two Clinton presidencies that have been politically very successful—arguably even triumphant in the face of the Congressional "Republican revolution" of 1994-95 and the impeachment proceedings of late 1998 and early 1999. At the height of his Senate impeachment trial, President Clinton delivered his next to last State of the Union address. He took credit for eliminating the federal budget deficit, putting the nation "on course for budget surpluses for the next 25 years," and achieving "the longest peacetime economic expansion in our history—with nearly 18 million new jobs, wages rising at nearly twice the rate of inflation, the highest home ownership in history, the smallest welfare rolls in 30 years—and the lowest peacetime unemployment since 1957." Clinton outlined a plan to devote projected federal surpluses to retiring federal debt and shoring up Social Security and Medicare in order to "meet our generation's historic responsibility to establish true security for 21st Century seniors." He added a long list of proposed regulatory and tax adjustments, most justified as ways to help "our children" prepare for the "21st Century economy."

    Conspicuously missing from the 1999 State of the Union address were the "forgotten middle class" and the "working poor" so prominently featured in 1991 and 1992. Listeners might imagine that there are no longer Americans lacking basic social protections or working "harder for less money." But actually economic and social inequities have continued to widen during the 1990s, just as they did during the previous twelve years presided over by Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

    To be sure, all Americans have benefited from steady and robust economic growth. In the expanding economy of the 1990s, men and women have been able to find jobs—even combine two or three jobs to buoy family incomes. Real increments to the wages of low- and middle-income employees finally appeared late in the 1990s expansion. But by far the greatest part of the decade's economic gains have flowed toward the most privileged heights of the American class structure—not to put too fine a point on it, toward those who "speculate in paper" on Wall Street. The incomes and wealth of the top fifth have soared, with the top 5 percent (indeed the top 1 percent) doing best of all. As economist Lester Thurow explains, "the bottom 60 percent of Americans cannot benefit from the stock market boom since they don't own any stock." And wages have also stagnated for nonprivileged Americans. "Real wages for 80 percent of the male labor force are below where they used to be," Thurow notes, adding that incomes for families right at the middle of the U.S. income ladder have hardly changed in real dollars since the 1970s, even though "the average wife is working 15 more weeks a year than she did back then."

    At the bottom of the economic ladder the American dream of success through hard work is fading, explains political scientist John Schwarz, because "more than 12 million full-time year-round workers are paid wages beneath those needed to support a minimally decent standard of living for households with children. Two-thirds of workers who start at subpar wages are unable to lift themselves to a decent wage even after a decade of full-time work." Nor can families working for meager pay count on adequate health care, pensions, or family leaves. Huge gaps remain in social supports vital to the well-being of working families. Private employers have reduced contributions to employee retirement pensions and health insurance for employees and their family members. Less-educated Americans working for low or modest wages are the least likely to be covered, and are the ones experiencing the sharpest cutbacks in employers' contributions to health insurance and pensions. Many of these same working men and women remain beyond the reach of federal legislation.

    Under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act that President Clinton repeatedly touts as one of his and the Democratic Party's major legislative achievements, employees of small businesses (who are more likely than other employees to earn low wages) are not covered at all. And the legally covered employees of larger enterprises must be able to afford to forgo wages if they want to claim their right to take unpaid time off to tend to family emergencies. For many of America's most vulnerable workers, political advertisements touting Family and Medical Leave as a great step forward must simply underline the irrelevance of government to their daily lives.

    People working for low or modest wages and their children are also the ones falling through the cracks in our nation's evermore-fractured and incomplete health care system. Leaving aside the many employees who must contribute more to employer-designated managed care plans that may not meet their needs, the ranks of Americans not covered at all by any private or public health insurance rose from 14.8 percent of the nonelderly population in 1987 to 18.3 percent in 1997. Despite President Clinton's support for the principle of extended coverage, about one million Americans per year have lost health insurance during his watch; and contractions in public coverage account for much of the increase in the uninsured since 1993. By 1997, more than 43 million Americans had no health insurance—and coverage shrinks the lower down the income ladder one goes. Although Medicaid subsidizes care for many of the needy, nearly one-third of all impoverished Americans were uninsured in 1997. Most Americans not covered by health insurance are members of families with at least one worker; and the uninsured include about half of impoverished full-time workers. These working Americans play by the rules, yet go without a basic social support vital to personal and family well-being.

    Of course, we cannot simply blame the Clinton administration for shortfalls of social policy during the 1990s. After Clinton took office in 1992, progressives inside and outside of government had to contend with federal budget deficits and fierce conservative and business opposition to new social initiatives. When President Clinton's "Health Security" initiative failed, Republican "revolutionaries" led by Newt Gingrich took control of Congress and proceeded to slash spending for many social programs. But here is the point: Over the last few years, the federal budgetary situation has eased and conservative firebrands have been tamed, yet President Clinton shows little sign of taking up the unfinished business of "putting people first." By any measure of popular well-being, the "health care crisis" is worse than in 1992. But who in or near the Clinton-Gore administration now speaks about the mounting numbers of Americans lacking basic health insurance coverage—or going without other employment benefits or social supports necessary to family security? Who in power ever even mentions the widening gaps in income and opportunity that have accompanied the 1990s economic boom? President Clinton—and his heir apparent, Al Gore—have stopped talking about the "forgotten middle class." And they are no longer tackling the toughest issues of social equity.

    The basic trouble lies in the shape of American public discourse and the lay of the land in U.S. politics. For all that he is an adroit defender of established federal programs, Bill Clinton has led Democrats and the nation toward accommodating rather than challenging today's dominant political realities: big money influence; a shrinking, class-tilted electorate; and public debates dominated by professionally run advocacy groups. The social issues Clinton has featured since the mid-1990s resonate closely with agendas of public discussion set by clashing advocacy groups and media pundits—who themselves reflect and take for granted a constricted and increasingly class-biased political universe.

    American social policy debates these days are notable for concentrating on the elderly versus the young. Advocates are especially likely to argue over the merits of public programs for the retired elderly versus efforts to aid very poor children—saying little about the needs of the vast numbers of working parents who are truly at the epicenter of the changing realities of U.S. society and economic life. Conservatives in and around the Republican Party champion tax cuts favoring privileged families and entrepreneurial individuals. "New Democrat" politicians—urged on by the Democratic Leadership Council—espouse regulatory adjustments and tax credits that, in practice, help privileged employees more than others. Meanwhile, self-declared liberals limit themselves to defending special programs for the poor or pushing for a bit more public help to underprivileged children—who are often discussed apart from their working parents. Too often lost from view in these debates are Americans of the missing middle.

    I mean "middle" in both a socioeconomic and a generational sense. The people of the missing middle are working men and women of modest economic means—people who are not children and not yet retirees. They are the adults who do most of the providing and caring for the children who represent the future of American society, while paying the taxes that sustain retirees now and into the future. What is more, as Bill Clinton correctly suggested back in 1991 and 1992, Americans in the missing middle are not exclusively "the poor" on whom many liberals and conservatives debating welfare chiefly focus. Still less are they the biggest market winners, the entrepreneurs and investors and wealthiest professional families whose achievements and needs are championed by conservative Republicans—and by many "new Democrats," too. These Americans are, above all, the people who put in long hours to earn a living and make a decent life—coping with rising pressures in their workplaces, while trying to raise children in solo-parent or dual-worker households.


    Not only are the needs of such Americans in the middle often ignored, these citizens also hold commonsense values at odds with the polarized positions dramatized by advocates and politicians who capture the attention of the national mass media in an era of restricted politics. Questions of family integrity and security worry many people, yet the instincts of everyday Americans are at odds with the pronouncements dominating our national airways and editorial pages. The most visible pundits, advocates, and politicos are often not on the same wavelength as regular citizens—particularly not when the issue is the role of government and community in supporting families amidst economic and demographic upheaval.

    Most Americans, for example, believe that our nation can and should preserve Social Security and enhance Medicare as dignified and shared protections for the elderly. The majority want such steps to be taken for existing social insurance programs at the same time as our nation undertakes improved efforts to ensure educational opportunity, job security, and health care for all working-aged adults and their children. Although wary of government waste and unnecessarily high taxes on ordinary families, Americans consistently tell pollsters that they don't want cuts in social supports used to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. Indeed, many Americans have said they would be willing to pay a bit more in taxes, if they could be sure that new resources would not be wasted and would be devoted to basic goals like preserving Social Security and ensuring health care for all. People want a variety of family supports to be cautiously pursued, with government very much involved along with local communities, businesses, and religious congregations.

    Despite such popular attitudes, many advocates and politicians pursue restrictions on government as the overriding goal for contemporary public policy. Lip service may be paid to the goal of a balanced federal budget, but many politicians make sustaining a long-term balance ever more difficult by pushing tax cuts or credits favoring the wealthy and the professional-managerial upper middle class. Tax reductions must happen, we are told, because Americans in general are inherently hostile to doing things through government. Yet a sober reading of democratic opinion suggests that most Americans of modest means very much want certain things done through government.

    To further agendas of tax-cutting or the breakup of public programs, right-wing advocates and politicians encourage popular disillusionment with government and overstate the degree of existing distrust among citizens of modest means. Americans today certainly do wonder whether elected politicians are taking their priorities and values into account. This may be especially true for parents, 57 percent of whom recently agreed with the statement "I don't think public officials care much about what people like me think." But if people could have things as they wish, many would like a federal government that focuses on dignified social supports for families: sustaining Social Security and Medicare, ensuring safe communities, enhancing educational and job opportunities, and ensuring basic health care and access to child care and other supports for all working families. Americans would like new public initiatives to address the struggles of working mothers and fathers, especially those with modest means.

    Not just conservative Republicans but advocacy groups billing themselves as "nonpartisan" tout drastic cuts in social spending as the only way to the promised land of a "balanced" federal budget and a growing economy. For example, backed by generous funding from Wall Street and echoed by its many admirers in the elite media, the Concord Coalition—an advocacy group of budget-balancers and self-appointed fiscal watchdogs led by investment banker Peter Peterson—insists that the future of "our children and grandchildren" depends on slashing "entitlements" for middle-class retirees. Prognosticating crisis from an inevitable "demographic tidal wave," the Concord Coalition urges drastic changes in Social Security and Medicare, and predicts doom for the young if we don't slash federal "entitlement" spending. Editorialists have joined the Concord Coalition and many other advocacy groups in calling for elected representatives to be "courageous" by voting for cutbacks in social programs for the elderly, changes that voters have clearly said they do not want. Some liberals go along with such reasoning, hoping that public resources can be reallocated from the elderly to better fund endangered programs for the poor and the young. Opponents of social insurance routinely urge Americans into the trenches of a generational war that most people do not want to fight—a struggle that average Americans correctly sense to be entirely unnecessary.

    The debate over "family values" is another area where elite and popular opinion are frequently in noncreative tension. Most Americans worry about both the material circumstances and the moral climate for family life today. After all, real incomes for most working Americans, especially the young adults responsible for children, have declined or merely inched upward since the early 1970s. Opportunities to get steadily ahead at work are hard to find for many without college educations. During recent decades, an ever-more-commercialized and libertarian culture has undercut marital commitment and made sheltering and guiding children more difficult. Crime and physical insecurity plague many families both materially and morally. Worries about deteriorating schools combine with concerns about access to higher education, which is at once ever-more-costly and ever-more-necessary if young people are to flourish. In short, ordinary families face unprecedented material and moral challenges—and most Americans know it.

    But, strangely, many opinion-making elites are arguing about whether today's problems for families are about economics or values. Leftists and labor union leaders insist that "America needs a raise," and at times seem to imply that this obviously necessary step would be enough, that higher wages along with more job-connected benefits would solve all family problems. Even less convincingly, some commentators of a culturally conservative persuasion suggest that everything is materially hunky-dory for the vast majority of Americans, that the "real crisis" is about moral values. In this rendition, "values issues" are presented as purely cultural, or as matters of sheer individual willpower and choice (as in "people can choose to play by the rules or not"; "teenagers can choose to have sex or not"; and "women can choose not to have babies when they can't get married or afford to raise them"). In this one-sided view, people suffer materially when they make poor choices—for example, to get divorced or raise a child out of wedlock.

    Average citizens perceive the changing family forms of late-twentieth-century America through different lenses than polarizing advocates. To be sure, everyday folks worry about dangers to children born outside of marriage; and many are concerned about youngsters being raised by divorced parents (frequently mothers making do on their own with paltry resources). Public worries about the consequences of family fragility are genuine, even though many Americans are themselves divorced or unmarried parents, and nearly everyone knows friends or family members who are raising children alone. Yet a certain middle-of-the-road sobriety prevails about these family realities. People affirm the ideal of two married parents as best for children, yet at the same time want our schools, communities, and nation to take realities into account, to do the best we can for all parents and children. Ordinary Americans affirm long-standing family values, yet approach present-day departures from them in a spirit of sympathy, not vindictiveness.

    Egged on by a media that magnifies glib extremes, clashing advocates insist on falsely polarizing family issues. Traditionalists want America to make divorces very hard to obtain, assuming that this legalistic step will undo tensions between men and women that prevent or dissolve marriages. Meanwhile, some liberals insist that single motherhood expresses feminine independence, or brings salvation to mothers and children who would otherwise suffer abuse. In some circles, stressing the value of married parenthood—or suggesting that America could do more to support this ideal—can end up being denounced as "antifeminist."

    Polarized debate about changing family forms furthers a misleading menu of policy options. Even if many poor children must suffer in the short run, say militant "pro-family" conservatives, the United States must not only abolish welfare but also refuse any other kind of support for single-mother families, lest we "subsidize" the morally improper lifestyles of unmarried parents. Some leftists, meanwhile, celebrate pure freedom of choice for adults. They insist that all public policies must further an individualistic version of women's liberation, paying little attention to the limits and supports any society needs to create good environments for raising children. Others simply reduce social policy to welfare, and call for America to concentrate anew on helping the poorest single-mother families, while ignoring the needs of other parents and children.

    In the final analysis, most Americans would like our society to discuss broadly shared social problems, focusing on the needs and aspirations of regular folks who go to work every day and try to help their children get ahead in a fast-changing world. The vast majority of Americans live on their wages and make modest incomes—between the roughly $17,000 for a family of four that marks the "poverty line" and the roughly $50,000 a year for a family of four that marks about 25 percent more than the middle point of American family incomes. Most American mothers now work outside the home (as well as in it), yet many take part-time jobs that allow time for care and supervision of children; and many single mothers would like to have this option, too. Most Americans live in apartments or modest homes, and can afford only limited vacations. Ordinary families have to worry about access to good education for their offspring. Most worry about the realm of home and children and about the world of work and careers; people don't see these as alternative things to care about. But one would hardly know about the life circumstances and actual worries of ordinary Americans by listening to domestic political and policy debates over the past couple of decades.

    In addition to being falsely polarized in all of the ways I have just surveyed, the terms of debate have been tugged steadily rightward by those seeking to slash government and reward the most privileged with tax cuts. Right-wingers have been only weakly countered by new Democrats, or by liberals who engage in rearguard defense of existing government programs or speak only about "helping children." The middle has been left outside contemporary social policy debates, because neither right nor left has much to say about the real-world situation of the vast bulk of ordinary American families who live by wages and salaries, espouse moderate social values, and struggle with the new stresses that families now must face.

    Consider especially what has happened on the so-called conservative side of the national political spectrum. As late as the early 1960s, American conservatives were champions of national community along with a strong military. But over the past several decades, since the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s, a new breed of right-wingers has launched all-out war against the federal government. Crystallizing their cause during the presidency of Ronald Reagan—and carrying matters to an even more absurd extreme under the mid-1990s crusades led by militant House of Representative leaders Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey—contemporary conservative Republicans have championed the cause of slashing the size and scope of extralocal government. Lip service may be paid to the ideal of a "balanced federal budget," but the real aim of conservative Republicans is to hobble the domestic federal government and cut taxes on the well-to-do. This is done in the name of unleashing the free market and establishing what Newt Gingrich calls an "opportunity society" that rewards—and celebrates—America's most privileged individuals and families.

    "Family values" are touted by conservative Republicans, and not just to palliate their popular allies in the Christian right. Sincere and eloquent statements about basic moral concerns are often made by today's conservatives. Yet when it comes right down to it, conservative legislators propose measures disproportionately helpful to Americans clustered in the top third of the class structure. Benefits flow to families whose incomes derive from very high salaries, property holdings, and capital investments. Conservatives want to cut the taxes and subsidize the investments of such already well-off people because they honestly perceive such families as right-living—good models for all Americans. What is more, they believe the efforts of such model citizens will help all of us, by promoting vigorous market growth.

    Under the conservative program, however, the tab for dwindling social supports and public sector necessities must be borne by other American families—especially those getting by on modest wage and salary incomes and relying in retirement on Social Security and Medicare. Lower taxes for the rich leave Americans who live by wages and salaries shouldering ever more of the tax burden, even as educational loans, health coverage, and pensions become less reliable. Deterioration of public services and benefits, combined with the tougher tax bite on work rather than capital investments, can in turn be used to stoke popular disillusionment about government. Much commentary about government-slashing and tax-cutting has concentrated on the relative harms imposed on the very poorest Americans. But the real costs fall on the vast bulk of working middle-class families, not just the very poor. And the price is as much civic as material, because citizens who feel their basic values and needs are not addressed soon become cynical about politics and public social provision.

    Democrats may realize that cutting taxes on the wealthy—while squeezing Social Security, Medicare, and other federal spending—hurts the very voters on whom their party must depend at election time. But over the past decade or so, Democrats have become less certain of their core values and premises. Popular political participation and voting have dwindled, and Democrats have become increasingly beholden to wealthy campaign contributors. Self-styled "new Democrats" now join Republicans in a litany of complaints against "big government," voting regularly for tax cuts that favor the privileged only a little less obviously than the changes preferred by Republicans. In contrast to many Republicans, new Democrats want to use government regulations and tax credits to channel market forces. But new Democrats frequently demonize "big government" in terms not unlike the excoriations of conservative Republicans. Moreover, rightward-leaning Democrats often end up championing tax reductions and toothless regulations that help, at best, only the top two-fifths of families. New Democrats may favor a broader group of "winners" than contemporary Republicans, yet in practice they deliver little more than rhetoric to most working families.

    In and beyond the Democratic Party exists a remnant of unrepentant liberals. Of course, "liberal" is anything but a clear-cut label these days, for it encompasses many who are essentially elite libertarians—people who champion causes like abortion rights or unrestricted civil liberties. Old-fashioned liberals who care about inclusive social programs are a dwindling species, and many of them now rely on a cautious, salami-slice approach to public debate and social legislation.

    Since the defeat of universal health reform in 1993-94, socially minded liberals tend to presume that expensive and inclusive new social programs are impossible. Many try, instead, to appeal to public sympathy by arguing that children should be helped as a separate category. Advocacy groups such as the Children's Defense Fund believe that upper-middle-class and corporate support is most likely to be forthcoming for social programs framed as "saving children" or "investing in America's future." From time to time, popular majorities tell pollsters that they want support for both working parents and their children at the same time—for example, health insurance for the working poor, not just for poor children apart from their parents. But this does not change the "realistic" political equation in the minds of many liberal politicians and advocates. At once cheap and publicly appealing, public initiatives aimed at poor children seem like the surest bets at a time when the terms of public debate on fiscal fundamentals and the overall scope of government have been ceded to conservatives.

    Liberal wariness may seem understandable, but it can lead to little more than marginal adjustments within a shrinking set of public social supports for American families. In early 1999, for example, the Clinton administration recognized that health insurance coverage for American children has continued to erode despite the Children's Health Insurance Program enacted in 1997. What was the President's response, at a moment when he knew the federal government projected surplus revenues long into the future? He announced the creation of a national toll-free telephone number to provide information about programs for children to parents, many of whom themselves lack or are losing health insurance! As this maneuver suggests, solely child-focused liberalism is not a bold position. Hardly a realistic way to address fundamental issues of social equity, this approach speaks much too indirectly to the values and needs of the majority of working American families. Most worrisome, child-focused liberalism does little or nothing to activate millions of American working adults who need support themselves, and who must become civically involved if the political status quo is to change.


    With a focus primarily on national-level public policy, this book seeks to explain how the late-twentieth-century United States has ended up with an artificially polarized, rightward-tilting politics that downplays the needs and values of citizens in the missing middle.

    It wasn't always this way. The United States, I will show in Chapter Two, has a long history of generous, inclusive, and popular public social provision. Again and again, this nation has followed a recognizable formula to develop and sustain social supports for large numbers of individuals and families. But in recent times Americans have lost sight of long-standing approaches to successful social policy making.

    Sharp disagreements among advocates seeking to reshape U.S. social policies raise fundamental questions to be explored in the core chapters of this book. Many claim that America is doing too much for the old. An array of think tanks and advocacy groups argue that public benefits for elderly people who are not impoverished necessarily hurt the economy and undercut prospects for the young. What are the facts? Are the U.S. elderly mostly well-to-do? Are they receiving unneeded benefits that hurt younger Americans? If changes need to be made in existing social programs for retirees, what reforms would correct previous shortcomings without creating new ones? How could desirable changes become politically feasible? These are issues that I will take up in Chapters Three and Five.

    Condemnations of inclusive social protections for America's elderly are profoundly misguided, I maintain. America's social insurance protections for the elderly have had an enormously positive impact on the well-being and civic involvement of our grandparents, including the less privileged. Equally important, Social Security and Medicare have proved morally legitimate and politically sustainable in the U.S. democracy. Social Security should be protected—indeed, extended—for the future, and problems with Medicare addressed in the context of strengthening health care for all Americans.

    In very different ways to be sure, both conservatives and liberals tend to justify their schemes for reconstructing U.S. policies by appealing to the needs of "America's children" or the future of "our children and grandchildren." What is actually happening to America's children in the variety of families and communities that make up our diverse nation? I will take up aspects of this huge topic in Chapter Four. What sorts of problems for America's children are caused by broad economic forces and deficiencies of income? Which problems are more attributable to shifts in family lives, including the withdrawal of parental efforts and resources? Are the stresses faced by younger American families today primarily due to high levels of taxation, or market forces, or cultural trends?

    In fact, combinations of economic and sociocultural forces are at work. Government efforts to help children and families have not always been effectively focused, and revised efforts, blending certain conservative and progressive ideas, could do much better. As I elaborate in Chapter Five, the United States needs a new vision of opportunity and family security for all, interlocking public and nongovernmental measures focused above all on the needs and values of ordinary working parents.

    By one path or another, discussions of what is good for children quickly lead us toward consideration of pressures on American parents. Most American working parents must make a living from wages, salaries, and fringe benefits that are anything but secure in today's fast-changing global and national economy. They must also contend with a commercialized culture celebrating consumption and individual self-realization—values that, if carried to extremes, devalue social commitments and undercut responsible parental efforts to guide children.

    Current policy debates shortchange average working parents by arguing obsessively—and unrealistically—about existing government programs versus idealized market solutions. Liberals regularly call for federal governmental activism along the lines of existing antipoverty programs, while most conservatives place supreme faith in unleashed—indeed, additionally subsidized—market forces. With the partial exception of the Christian right, which stresses churches and charities, current policy advocates tend to downplay the importance of social ties of caring and support.

    Yet even civically minded conservatives have a stunted view of community, for they treat it as an outgrowth of pure voluntarism. The Christian right and secular civic conservatives speak of voluntarism and charity in sheer opposition to government, suggesting that whenever government withdraws or does nothing, charity and social care will automatically flourish. This is simply false, both historically and now. Historically, as we are about to learn, effective U.S. social policies have often worked through symbiotic ties between government and locally rooted membership associations. What is more, governmental regulations or income supports are often necessary prerequisites of family well-being and flourishing civic ties.

    Societal ties—and their absence or breakdown—are affected as much by what happens in the market economy as they are by what happens in the realm of government and politics. Civic conservatives celebrate voluntarism and charity as well as strong families and local communities. But they are suspiciously silent about the many ways in which U.S. market forces and business practices have undermined families and communities. Both government and the market have effects on family and community relationships that need to be analyzed and taken into account as social policies are designed.


    Throughout this book I analyze the historical and political contexts within which social policies are made or changed. Too often, policy debates take place only in terms of technical schemes or moral absolutes. Professional experts argue over ideal blueprints for programs that might solve technically defined problems—without ever considering whether broad democratic understanding and political support could be garnered on behalf of their idealized policy plans. Advocates argue in terms of moral absolutes—for example, for or against "the welfare state" or "the market"—without taking responsibility for the complex social alliances and political compromises that would be necessary to fashion any successful and sustainable solution to America's social and economic problems. Both technocrats and moralists, moreover, expostulate without any sense of history. Yet good policy making for America's future needs to take into account what has worked, or not, in the past, and how social and political conditions are changing over time. We as citizens need to think with historical insight and political purpose about what might be possible as well as desirable in American democracy—possible if not tomorrow, then within a generation, over the next couple of decades.

    The values and policy goals I advocate have been espoused, at least rhetorically, by some Democratic Party politicians—by Bill Clinton in his moments of "putting people first" and by Congressional Democrats who have waged election campaigns around a "Families First" agenda. But the policy ideals and political strategies I offer in this book are, to put it politely, more robust than the often marginal or merely symbolic gestures that most politicians have been willing to put forward. My proposals are certainly much more robust than anything recently elected Democrats have been able to deliver. If Democrats and other progressives really mean what they say about putting families first, they will have to project a more morally compelling vision, develop better policy ideas—and, above all, engage in an extensive strategy of popular political mobilization. Only in this way, as I will sum up in Chapter Five, can American politics and social policy making be recentered on the needs and values of the missing middle.

    This book, in short, deals not only with societal trends and public policies. It also reflects on the conflicts, shortcomings, and possibilities of American domestic politics at the dawn of a new century.

What People are saying about this

Cornel West
...Sophisticated historical analysis, subtle empirical insight, and relevant public policy recommendations. It is an indispensable work for our political moment.
— Cornel West, Harvard University
Cornell West
…Sophisticated historical analysis, subtle empirical insight, and relevant public policy recommendations. It is an indispensable work for our political moment.
—Cornel West, Harvard University

Meet the Author

Theda Skocpol is professor of government and sociology at Harvard University and the author of Boomerang: Health Care Reform and the Turn Against Government.

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