The Welfare State: The Costs of American Self-Sufficiency

  • Hugh Heclo


When non-Americans complain about Americanization overtaking many areas of their lives, they rarely refer to social policy. United States welfare programmes are not an object of envy or imitation elsewhere in the world. Quite the opposite. Complaints are far more likely to be heard from Americans that their national policies are being ‘socialized’ (i.e. Europeanized) in ways inconsistent with native virtues. In caricature, these virtues teach that hard work by individuals supplies acquisitive rewards and personal independence; education opens opportunity for better work rewards; limited, divided government guarantees the competitive underpinning for individual opportunity and work; and that all this ought to be enough for anybody. Welfare is equated with antipoverty measures and treated as an affair requiring a neat, technical solution for those special residual groups that cannot succeed in the work-education competition. Americans, as the phrases go, stand on their own two feet; they pay their own way. In essence, the challenge confronting the American welfare state is to extract social equity from a credo of homogenized individualism and pulverized government.


Welfare State Public Assistance Welfare Reform Housing Allowance Social Provision 
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  1. Much of the voluminous work on American social policy is summarized in publications of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. On social insurance, see Joseph Pechman et al., Social Security: Perspective for Reform (1968), and John Brittain, The Payroll Tax for Social Security (1972); on the issues and attitudes surrounding means-tested public assistance,Google Scholar
  2. see Gilbert Steiner, The State of Welfare (1971), Social Insecurity: The Politics of Welfare (1966), andGoogle Scholar
  3. Leonard Goodwin, Do the Poor Really Want to Work (1972); in-depth analyses of the federal government’s allocation of public resources are presented in the annual volumes by Charles Schultze et al., Setting National Priorities (1971 to present).Google Scholar
  4. A most useful one-volume collection on poverty and other issues of American social policy is David Gordon’s Problems of Political Economy (New York: D. C. Heath, 1971). The myths of America’s welfare crisis are dealt with at length in my article with Martin Rein, ‘What Welfare Crisis?’, The Public Interest (Autumn 1978).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Hugh Heclo 1974

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hugh Heclo
    • 1
  1. 1.The Brookings InstitutionUK

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