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Renewing the American Social Contract

Competing Visions of the Past: Learning from History for the Future of American Social Policy

  • By Steven Attewell, University of California-Santa Barbara
December 6, 2012 |
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Click here to download the full paper as a PDF.

In his 2012 nomination acceptance speech in Charlotte, President Obama argued that this election represented “a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.” It is also true to say that we faced a choice between two fundamentally different visions of the past. And despite Obama’s reelection, the debate rages on in a closely-divided electorate and in Washington. Underneath disagreements over Obamacare, Medicare advantage cuts and Medicare vouchers, and individual retirement accounts, there is an argument about which model of social policy is best for the country.

Broadly speaking, the current debate revolves around three models of providing support to our citizens – employer-based benefits, individual accounts, and social insurance – that have been tested in the past, and yet there has been very little attention paid to our historical experience. When history can tell us which of them worked and which didn’t, we should pay more attention to these lessons. By learning from this history, we can determine how to craft better social policy for the future.

Click here to read the full paper, "Competing Visions of the Past: Learning From History for the Future of American Social Policy," by Steven Attewell.

This paper is part of the series "Renewing the American Social Contract." To view the full list of papers in this series, click here.

The verdict of history is quite clear: employer-based insurance and individual accounts have always been fatally flawed; the former is dying on its feet and the latter is simply not fit for purpose.