Nicholas Lemann, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and author of The Promised Land (Vintage, 1992).
"Why doesn't the United States have a comprehensive social-democratic welfare state like most of the other advanced nations of the world? Linda Gordon's Pitied but not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare (Harvard, 1995), a bittersweet portrait of the feminist reformers who created the 'mothers' pensions' that metamorphosed into the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and Theda Skocpol's Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Harvard, 1995), an optimistic account of the roots of social welfare in Civil War pensions, would both give the same answer: because we have never made basic income support an entitlement program that has a big middle-class constituency the way Social Security and Medicare do. In The End of Reform (Vintage, 1996), Alan Brinkley portrays economic regulation as the royal road to the kind of welfare state that we don't have: Employers could be forced to provide workers with job security, high wages, pensions, and health-care benefits. As to the demise of welfare, all three of these books would say (if books could talk): 'What do you expect? It didn't have any political cover.'"
Thomas J. Sugrue, associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Post-War Detroit (Princeton, 1997).
"Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein explode conventional wisdom about poor people and their lives in Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low Wage Work (Russell Sage Foundation, 1997). Rather than pontificating about welfare dependency or spinning out anti-welfare diatribes based on theories about the supposed behavioral deficiencies of the poor, they talked to poor women themselves. Their conclusion: It's impossible to survive on welfare alone--and low-wage labor leaves families even worse off. All but one of 214 AFDC recipients interviewed depended on outside income. Read this book in conjunction with the hard statistics and sober policy analysis in the fine anthology Confronting Poverty: Prescriptions for Change, edited by Sheldon Danziger, Gary Sandefur, and Daniel Weinberg (Harvard, 1994). The message is clear: The premises of welfare reform are dead wrong."
James Patterson, professor of history at Brown University and author of America's Struggle Against Poverty, 19001994 (Harvard, 1995) and Grand Expectations: The United States, 19451974 (Oxford, 1996), winner of the Bancroft Prize.
Patterson recommends From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism (Kansas, 1996), by Gareth Davies. This book "argues that the American welfare state has come full circle with the reforms of 1996. Davies, a British scholar, laments the historic enthusiasm for 'entitlement liberalism'--such as guaranteed annual income programs--championed by the National Welfare Rights Organization, George McGovern, and other advocates of a 'New Politics' in the Democratic Party since the mid-Sixties. Davies argues that their efforts--however unrealized as policy--undermined the 'venerable tradition of liberal individualism' developed by FDR and Lyndon B. Johnson. Thus he ventures a provocative conclusion: In rejecting the New Politics, President Clinton is simply returning to the organizing principles of the Great Society."
Alan Wolfe, University Professor at Boston University and author of Whose Keeper?: Social Science and Moral Obligation (California, 1991) and Marginalized in the Middle (Chicago, 1996).
"Preoccupied with economics and politics," notes Wolfe, "we sometimes forget that the welfare state has been a great exercise in applied moral philosophy. Avishai Margalit's The Decent Society (Harvard, 1996) presents arguments in the rigorous style of British analytic philosophy about why no one should be humiliated. In an ideal world, we seek justice; in this world, we can realize decency, and the welfare state can help us do so. To save the welfare state, we need to be reminded why we created one, which Margalit effectively does."
Linda Gordon, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, editor of Women, the State, and Welfare (Wisconsin, 1991), and author of Pitied but not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare (Harvard, 1995).
"As conservatives try to undo the welfare state in the United States, it seems important to trace its vulnerability. Comparative studies can help, but the sociology and economics scholarship usually neglects historical process, without which it's hard to understand how some countries and not others came to foster a commitment to social cohesion and citizenship. One good study that illuminates this process is Susan Pedersen's Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France, 19141945 (Cambridge, 1993). Pedersen shows how resource transfers in different directions construct different welfare regimes. In France, for example, a fear of a decline in birthrates led to a system that transferred resources from those with few or no children to those with many. The resulting French child-allowance program was more generous than its counterpart in England, despite a stronger feminist campaign for such a program there."
Myron Magnet, editor of City Journal and author of The Dream & the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass (William Morrow, 1993).
"There is no better guide to the underclass--the greatest beneficiaries of the welfare state and the greatest reproach to it--than Theodore Dalrymple's If Symptoms Still Persist (Andre Deutsch, 1994). Dalrymple, a columnist for the London Spectator, understands that the welfare state is, among other things, a state of mind--a belief system that sees no point in making any effort at self-improvement but that stays fixed firmly in the present, with its fleeting pleasures and its sense of resentful entitlement. It is this worldview, says Dalrymple, that keeps the inner-city poor imprisoned in failure from generation to generation--and it is a worldview that judges, social workers, journalists, and politicians continually encourage the underclass to accept. If Symptoms Still Persist is filled with extraordinary insight and written in a prose that provides literary pleasure of a high order."
Peter Edelman, professor of law at Georgetown University and former assistant secretary for planning and evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services (19931995).
"My passion when the subject is the American welfare state is what we do and, increasingly, don't do about the poverty of families with children. Two recent books I think everyone should read are Jonathan Kozol's Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (Crown, 1995) and William Julius Wilson's When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (Knopf, 1996). You can't read Kozol without realizing how destructively simplistic the bumper-sticker, one-size-fits-all premise of the new welfare law is. With his usual power and eloquence, he lays bare the realities about the hand we deal poor families and children, especially African Americans and Latinos, who struggle to survive in the forced isolation of the inner city. Wilson is the coup de grāce because he demolishes the blithe assumption that the jobs are out there, ready and waiting, if people would just get off their behinds and make an effort. The new law assumes the problem is 'them'--the people on welfare. Kozol and Wilson insist this is a vast oversimplification."
Geoffrey Eley, professor of history at the University of Michigan, author of Reshaping the German Right: Radical Nationalism and Political Change After Bismarck (Michigan, 1991), and editor of Society, Culture, and the State in Germany, 18701930 (Michigan, 1996).
"Our understanding of the German welfare state and its political complexities has been transformed by a stream of first-class historical work. George Steinmetz's Regulating the Social: The Welfare State and Local Politics in Imperial Germany (Princeton, 1993) investigates the pre-1914 origins of the welfare state, undermining crude arguments about the period's continuity with Nazism. Atina Grossmann's Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 19201950 (Oxford, 1995) persuasively demonstrates how the modernizing vision of liberated sexuality, comprehensive welfare, and rational living was mixed up for the Nazis with other, more sinister objectives involving social discipline and the ordering of populations. Robert G. Moeller's Protecting Motherhood: Women and the Family in the Politics of Postwar West Germany (California, 1993) is a vital study of the gendered politics of welfare since World War II. These three works--which normalize the German case without denying its perversion under Nazism--brilliantly establish the centrality of welfare to political conflict under twentieth-century capitalism, and they are essential reading for comparative purposes."
James T. Kloppenberg, author of Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 18701920 (Oxford, 1986) and The Virtues of Liberalism: American Political Argument (Oxford, forthcoming).
Kloppenberg reviles the "quest for the holy grail of a transnational explanation for the rise of the welfare state--the number of exceptions equals the number of nations." William J. Novak's The People's Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America (North Carolina, 1996) is "a stunning account of a previously unknown universe of state and local laws that regulated nearly every aspect of early American economy and society. It demonstrates that postCivil War laissez-faire did not grow naturally from earlier national traditions but radically altered them." Regarding the post- Civil War period, Kloppenberg recommends Daniel T. Rodgers's Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age, 1870-1945 (Harvard, forthcoming), "an exhaustive study that should sober anyone still intoxicated by the prospect of finding general explanations for the rise of 'the welfare state.' None of the existing models of welfare-state formation adequately captures the complexity of the evidence Rodgers presents."
Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.