The American welfare state system

With special reference to asset- and means-tested social assistance programs

Authored by: Peter Abrahamson

The Routledge International Handbook to Welfare State Systems

Print publication date:  January  2017
Online publication date:  January  2017

Print ISBN: 9781472449306
eBook ISBN: 9781315613758
Adobe ISBN: 9781317041085


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The US welfare state system has been characterized in a number of ways, mostly unflattering, such as residual, a laggard, belated and exceptional (Prasad, 2016). The most authoritative label, however, is that of a liberal welfare state, which is what Gøsta Esping-Andersen named the American experience in his seminal work The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (1990). The United States appeared prominently in his analysis being highlighted as the proto-typical liberal welfare state system dominated by a strong poverty orientation, a huge role for the market via insurance schemes and a large voluntary sector. The understanding was that markets and civil society compensated for the small role of government resulting in a society where welfare policies did not do much to change the initial unequal distribution of resources and, to a large extent, left people to depend on private solutions to social problems and risks. Indicators of a liberal welfare state system are high levels of poverty and low levels of social spending, or in the methodology of Esping-Andersen, little influence on social stratification because of low levels of decommodification. Some 25 years later this picture, in the main, still holds true even when some of the assumptions associated with development of welfare policies in the US have been seriously challenged and revised.

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