The United States has two types of social welfare programs. The first includes programs that are available to everyone regardless of income, such as Social Security and Medicare. These programs are known as entitlements because Congress has obligated itself to pay these benefits to all those old enough to receive them. The second type includes programs that are available only to those whose income falls below a certain level, such as Medicaid and the Food Stamps program. In these programs, means tests are applied to determine if incomes are below a certain level.
Social welfare policy in the United States has developed differently than it has in most other nations. There are several reasons for this. First, many Americans have taken a restrictive view of who deserves to benefit from social welfare. The public often insists that only those who cannot help themselves should benefit. Second, the United States has been slower than most countries in embracing welfare policy. When Congress passed the Social Security Act in 1935, twenty-two European nations already had similar programs. It was not until the reinterpretation of the Constitution in the 1930s that the federal government was allowed to enact social welfare policy. Third, state governments and private enterprises play a significant role in administering programs in the United States.
Two significant acts are the cornerstone of social welfare programs: 1. The Social Security Act of 1935: When the Great Depression struck in 1929, private charities and city relief programs were overwhelmed. The election of 1932 brought Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency and a wave of Democrats to Congress. Roosevelt's cabinet created two kinds of programs. The first would provide insurance for the unemployed and elderly, to which workers would contribute and from which they would benefit when they became unemployed or retired. The second would provide assistance for dependent children, the blind, and the elderly. The federal government would use its power to tax to provide the funds, but except for old-age insurance, all of the programs would be administered by the states. Everyone would be eligible for the insurance programs. Means tests would be used to measure those eligible for assistance programs. 2. The Medicare Act of 1965: Medical benefits were omitted from the Social Security Act in 1935 in order to ensure its passage. For thirty years various policy entrepreneurs lobbied for a national health care plan that would win a congressional majority. The 1964 elections brought a huge Democratic majority to Congress. A new Medicare bill applied only to the aged (those over the age of sixty-five so that the costs of the program would be limited. The program would cover only hospital bills and not doctors' bills so that doctors would not be regulated. The original proposal was broadened to include Medicaid for the poor and payment of doctors' bill for the elderly. Both Social Security and Medicare are controversial policies in the United States. The problems of funding them cut across several aspects of the policy-making process. In 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Affordable Health Care Act. By 2014, people will have to have insurance, if not from their job then they will have to buy it. Those without insurance would be fined by the government. The government would subsidize costs for the poor. How this will actually work remains to be seen, and if it will actually save money in the long run.
Both Social Security and Medicare are currently under scrutiny because of potential problems some see on the horizon. There will soon be an insufficient number of people paying Social Security taxes to provide benefits for every retired person. Several solutions have been offered, but they are opposed by the public and therefore politically dangerous. These include: raising the retirement age to seventy, freezing retirement benefits, and raising Social Security taxes. For Medicare, the growing number of elderly and expensive medical procedures will bankrupt the program if changes are not made soon. Medicare also has the potential to encourage waste and fraud. The issue is also important to powerful interest groups, such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the American Medical Association (AMA).
One part of the Social Security Act received enough negative attention to force its demise. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was scarcely noticed when it was enacted in the 1930s. Initially the AFDC involved giving federal aid to existing state programs. It allowed states to determine what constituted need, to set benefit levels, and to administer the program. The program became less acceptable to the public over the years. Many viewed the recipients as undeserving. States became constrained by increasing numbers of federal regulations. Expensive programs were added, such as Food Stamps and Earned Income Tax Credit (a cash grant to poor parents who work). Increasingly, the recipients of aid were unwed mothers who had been assisted for more than eight years. The AFDC increasingly lost political legitimacy until it was abolished in 1996. The abolition of the AFDC is an excellent example of how public perceptions can change policy. During the Great Depression more people were seen as deserving of aid. Perceptions changed in the 1980s and recipients were viewed as undeserving. In its place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program was established. Each state is allocated a federal block grant to help pay the costs of providing TANF. Adults can receive TANF benefits for only five years. Aid is reduced to women who do not help identify the fathers of their children. Unmarried mothers under age eighteen are eligible for benefits only if they live with their parents and attend school.
Social welfare policy is an excellent example of the different patterns of policy-making that exist in the United States. Policies that benefit most or all Americans, such as Social Security and Medicare, are widely supported and amended only with great difficulty. These are examples of majoritarian politics. Policies that benefit relatively few Americans but are paid for by many, such as AFDC, are constantly in jeopardy of being reduced or even abolished. These typify a pattern of client politics.
Environmental policy is very controversial. Environmental issues almost always create those who benefit and those who pay. Those who pay are generally indignant. Another reason environmental policy is controversial is that environmental issues are shrouded in scientific uncertainty, making problems and their solutions uncertain. The United States has a number of political features that make its environmental policy different from policies found in other countries. These include an adversarial political culture, conflict between government and business, and the distribution of monitoring standards to the states. Environmental issues illustrate all of the styles of policy-making in the United States, including entrepreneurial politics, majoritarian politics, interest group politics, and client politics.
In entrepreneurial politics, an unorganized public benefits from the efforts of a well-organized group. The issues of global warming and endangered species reveal the workings of entrepreneurial politics.
Global warming refers to the theory that gases produced when people burn fossil fuels get trapped in the atmosphere, causing the earth's temperature to rise. When the temperature goes up, negative consequences may follow. Floods on coastal areas may occur as polar ice camps melt, and severe weather may produce more destructive storms. There is no consensus in the scientific community regarding the consequences of global warming. Activists, motivated by information provided by scientists, have had great influence regarding global warming. By mobilizing the media, dramatizing the issue, and convincing members of Congress that their reputations will suffer if they do not cast the right vote, activists have provoked action.
In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was signed by the United States, pledging the nation to lower emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide by 30 percent. Some fear that complying with the Kyoto Protocol could have severe negative effects on the economy. Others have suggested that the research and innovation necessary to meet the Kyoto goals would spark economic growth, as the space race did. President Bush opposed the treaty, primarily because the burdens of meeting the Kyoto goals fall more heavily on industrialized nations like the United States and are more forgiving to industrializing countries with which our businesses compete. The Senate never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and the Obama Administration has not pushed for it.
Another example of entrepreneurial politics is the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Passed as the result of the efforts of well organized environmentalists, the act forbids killing a protected species and adversely affecting its habitat. Firms and government agencies that want to build a dam, bridge, or factory in an area where an endangered species lives must comply with federal regulations protecting the endangered plants or animals.
In majoritarian politics, the public benefits but also incurs the costs of a policy. One example of environmental policy that illustrates majoritarian politics is the Clean Air Act of 1970, which imposed tough restrictions on automobile emissions. At first the public supported it. However, one provision changed the initial support to opposition: any area where smog was a problem (for example, New York, Denver, Los Angeles), even after emission controls, would have to restrict the public's use of cars. Efforts to enforce these rules failed. This issue illustrates that the public will support tough environmental laws when somebody else pays or when the costs are hidden, but not when they have to pay for it themselves-especially when the payment takes the form of changing how and when to use the family car.
A second example of environmentalism and majoritarian politics is the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). This legislation contained a provision requiring that an environmental impact statement (EIS) be tiled before any government agency or private entity undertakes an activity that will significantly affect the quality of the human environment. Opponents of virtually any government backed project have used environmental impact statements to block, change, or delay the project. Despite the grumbling of many people adversely affected by fights over these impact statements, popular support for the law remains strong because the public at large does not believe that it is paying a high price and does believe that it is gaining a significant benefit. Majoritarian politics can also be seen in the public's general opposition to proposals to raise gasoline taxes. Although higher taxes would discourage driving and reduce smog, people are hesitant to embrace the policy because they would pay the tax first and benefit only much later.
Interest group politics occur when two organized groups with a stake in the outcome fight over who will pay and who will benefit. The issue of acid rain is a good example of interest group politics. Acid rain is rain, snow, or dust particles that are acidic when they fall to the ground. One source of acid rain is coal, which contains sulfur. When several eastern lakes were acidified and several eastern forests were destroyed by acid in the 1970s, midwestern steel mills and electric power plants that burn high-sulfur coal were blamed because prevailing winds tend to carry the sulfur eastward. Two well organized groups emerged to fight over the issue. Residents of Canada and New England sought to reap financial benefits from the midwestern businesses, which feared the potential costs. One solution called for the mills to burn low-sulfur coal. This might have been effective but also expensive because low-sulfur coal comes from the West, increasing transportation costs. Another alternative was to install smokestack scrubbers. This is also costly and not always effective. When confronted with the issue, Congress voted for scrubbers on all new plants. This policy protected jobs and pleased environmentalists as well. When the scrubbers did not work, a stalemate took hold for thirteen years. Eventually a two-step regulation was proposed that became part of the Clean Air Act of 1990. Before 1995 some plants could choose their approach to reducing emissions by a fixed amount. After 1995 sharper emission reductions for many more plants would be imposed, requiring the use of some scrubbers. When confronted with interest group politics, Congress tends to find workable compromises, rather than pass sweeping legislation.
Client politics occur when an organized group gets a benefit and an unorganized public must pay. Farmers have successfully resisted efforts to sharply restrict the use of pesticides. American farmers are the most productive in the world, and most of them believe that they cannot achieve that output without using pesticides. Although often attacked by environmental organizations, farm groups have generally been successful at practicing client politics. Very few pesticides have been taken off the market, and those that have been removed tend to be ones clearly harm the environment-for example, the effect of DDT on birds. One reason few pesticides have been removed from the market is that they have undetermined effects on long-term human health problems, such as cancer. Another reason is that farm groups have very powerful supporters in Congress.
Formulating consistent environmental policies has proven difficult. One problem is that environmental problems are not clear-cut - even scientists often differ in their opinions about environmental matters. Another problem is that public opinion changes, sometimes altering the goals of environmental policy. A third problem is deciding on how goals should be achieved. Issuing rules and enforcing them in court (command-and-control strategy) is not always the wisest policy; this strategy falsely assumes that rule-makers and rule-enforcers know how to achieve the greatest environmental gain at the least cost.
All of these uncertainties have. become part of the political controversies surrounding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is responsible for administering pollution and environmental programs. The EPA must try to identify problems and develop regulations. Congressional demands sometimes intervene and shift priorities. The EPA must also determine the costs and benefits of a policy, even when the public does not distinguish between realistic and unrealistic threats. Then the EPA must set goals, which are often unrealistic and require extensions and revisions. The method of achieving goals has changed from command-and-control strategy to offering incentives, which include the following: I Offsets: If a company wants to open a new plant in an area with polluted air, it can do so if the pollution it generates is offset by a reduction in pollution from another source in that area. To achieve this reduction, the new company may buy an existing company and close it down. II Bubble standard: A bubble is the total amount of air pollution that can come from a given factory. A company is free to decide which specific sources within that factory must be reduced and how to meet the bubble standard. III Pollution allowances, or banks: If a company reduces its polluting emissions by more than the law requires, it can either bank this excess to cover a future plant expansion or sell it to another company as an offset.
Although Americans think that their environment has degenerated, some aspects of it have in fact improved. In particular, progress has been made with air standards. Improvements in water quality are less certain. Hazardous waste and pesticide reduction remain major problems.