Posted in Inequality, Meritocracy, Welfare

Agnes Callard — A More Perfect Meritocracy

This post is a piece by Agnes Callard, A More Perfect Meritocracy, which was published in Boston Review on December 21, 2020.  Here’s a link to the original.

As you know, if you’ve been following this blog, I’ve long been wrestling with the idea of meritocracy.  In particular, I’ve been focusing on its dysfunctions and pathologies, with special attention to the role that higher education plays in creating this situation.  The core problem is that our meritocracy values the success of some at the cost of the failure of others —  lavishing material rewards and social respect on those who emerge from the best colleges and move into the best jobs while at the time punishing those who don’t make the grade academically with material want and social disrespect.  

In this essay, Callard reviews two books that critique the meritocracy — Fredrik deBoer’s The Cult of Smart and Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit.  (The second I have discussed here.)  

What I find intriguing in her analysis is the way she seeks to rescue the reward side of meritocracy while seeking to banish the punishment side.  It’s ok to reward people for high achievement, she ways, even if much of this is the result of birth advantages, as long as we don’t punish those who aren’t the most accomplished scholars or athletes or professionals, often because of lacking those birth advantages.

She seeks to reconcile a basic tension in human desires, in which we both want to belong and to achieve greatness, to cooperate with others and to rise above the crowd. “People want to stand out; people do not want to be alone.”

First, people are driven by a need for belonging, and a consequent motivation both to benefit the group and to be recognized as full-fledged members of it. Some positive words for this drive are “cooperative” and “selfless”; some negative ones are “conformist” and “sheep.” Second, people are inclined to hold themselves apart from the group, to stand out from it. When we approve of this inclination we describe it as “the pursuit of excellence” and call such a person “extraordinary” or “independent”; when we dislike it, we use words such as “uncooperative” and “egotistical” and accuse its bearer of “competitiveness” or “greediness.” Switching between positively and negatively charged terms is one of the ways we artificially fit these warring drives into one social order.

What we need is to do, she says, is to embrace the kind of asymmetry that both deBoer and Sandel reject.  They want us to attribute both success and failure in the meritocracy to factors over which people have no control.  This means honoring the poor by demeaning the rich.  Here’s how she puts her perspective.

Depriving someone of the basics needed to live a decent life is a form of punishment, and arguably no one—except perhaps one guilty of grievous wrongdoing—deserves that. You can think that everyone deserves a decent life and also think that some people deserve more than that, in virtue of what they have achieved. And—this is what comes of accepting the asymmetry I’ve been arguing for—you can think that person A deserves material or social rewards for achievements that person B had no chance to produce (say, for genetic reasons, or due to sexism, or pure bad luck). The fact that chance played a role in A’s success does not invalidate our rewarding him for it. But the fact that we can and should reward A does not entail that we are permitted to punish B for her lack of success. B deserves a decent life, even if she never earned the rewards we (justifiably) give only to A.

The key problem here, she says, is not just sociological but also ethical.

The question of who we praise and who we blame is not a scientific question, but an ethical one; there is no way to answer it except by deliberating seriously about the kind of society we want to live in.

The example she gives really brings it home for an academic like me.

People rarely, if ever, deserve to fail, but people typically deserve their successes. To prove that this asymmetry is coherent, consider the ethos among a group of striving friends. When one of my academic friends faces a professional setback—a paper rejection, a fruitless job search, being denied tenure—the rest of us respond with sympathy and compassion.  We do not say, “This was your fault for not working hard enough.” Except under truly extraordinary circumstances, we do not take ourselves to be in the business of blaming, faulting, and condemning our friends. But when that same person achieves some triumph, we would typically congratulate her for the fruits of her efforts. We credit her for her accomplishments without blaming her for her failures. One should not assume that this situation must boil down either to amiable exaggeration of someone’s role in her triumphs or to well-meant but deceptive downplaying of her responsibility for her failures. There need be no white lies involved in our response, because it is ethically correct to respond asymmetrically to the role of chance in success and failure. The simple fact is that you can praise a student for his A without blaming him for his C. And this is, in fact, usually how you should act.

Here’s her conclusion:

Constructing a non-punitive meritocracy is not at all straightforward—any more than constructing a non-racist or non-sexist meritocracy, or one that is not biased in favor of the rich. But it is a worthy project, because a non-punitive meritocracy holds out the prospect of combining—not merely in words, but in reality—our desire for cooperative communitarian harmony with our commitment to individual excellence and achievement. Sandel and deBoer urge us to sacrifice the latter at the altar of the former. But that wouldn’t be necessary if we could achieve both goals. A kinder, more compassionate, more progressive—which is to say, less punitive—meritocracy would give us the best of all worlds.

Her argument really resonates with an idea I’ve been mulling for years.  Social inequality is not necessarily a social evil all in itself.  The existence of billionaires doesn’t hurt me in any particular way.  If you have enough money to live on comfortably and provide for your children, if you have good health insurance and a decent pension, you are in good shape.  Under these circumstances, you don’t need a fancy degree or fabulous wealth in order to have a good life.  A well funded welfare state can therefore be tolerant of a relatively high degree of social inequality that provides outside rewards for super achievers, even if they started with special advantages.  The problem with the social structure in the US may not be its high ceiling so much as its low floor.  

See what you think. 

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A More Perfect Meritocracy

Two new books take aim at the moral failures of meritocracy. But we can advocate for a more just society without giving up on merit.

AGNES CALLARD

The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice
Fredrik deBoer
All Points Books, $28.99 (cloth)

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
Michael Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (cloth)

We have some say in how our lives go, and yet our lives are also subjected to forces outside our control. Which part of this story do we emphasize? Conservatives tend to see the glass as half full, stressing both agential control over outcomes and personal responsibility for them. Progressives are more likely to highlight the causal role of outside factors—even when those factors are in some sense “internal,” such as one’s genetic makeup—and to caution us to err on the side of withholding blame for poor outcomes.

Educator and essayist Fredrik deBoer argues that there is one domain where this political pattern breaks down: in conversations about academic achievement. In the introduction to his new book The Cult of Smart, deBoer articulates the puzzle by drawing on blogger Scott Alexander’s memory of having been praised for getting A in English but blamed for getting a C- in calculus:

Every time I was held up as an example in English class, I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. I didn’t do it! I didn’t study at all, half the time I did the homework in the car on the way to school, those essays for the statewide competition were thrown together on a lark without a trace of real effort. To praise me for any of it seemed and still seems utterly unjust.

On the other hand, to this day I believe I deserve a fricking statue for getting a C- in Calculus I. It should be in the center of the schoolyard, and have a plaque saying something like “Scott Alexander, who by making a herculean effort managed to pass Calculus I, even though they kept throwing random things after the little curly S sign and pretending it made sense.”

Why, Alexander wonders, should praise and blame track what is clearly innate? “The compassionate, sympathetic, progressive position,” he observes, is to deny that peoples’ drinking problems—or obesity, or depression, or kleptomania—are up to them: we should not blame people for mental or physical illness by insisting that they can be overcome with sufficient effort. But, deBoer notes, “this thinking is anathema” among the same progressive circles “when applied to academic aptitude.” Why do the very people who want to avoid blame for hereditary conditions treat academic success as though it were purely a matter of hard work?

DeBoer suggests that part of the explanation is a too hasty progressive repudiation of scientific work on intelligence. Confronted by the dark legacy of scientific racism, progressives are anxious to deny claims of group-level IQ differences, but in the same swoop they end up denying science that shows that individual IQ is at least 50 percent heritable. Both Alexander and deBoer think this is a mistake. They propose that we can be consistently sympathetic and progressive only by facing up to the implications of hard-wired individual IQ differences: academic success and failure are no more “earned” than mental health or illness, and it is cruel to treat them as though they were.

For deBoer this argument is not only important in its own right. It is central to his book’s critique of our meritocratic educational system. Written with the persuasive authority of a seasoned educator, The Cult of Smart is a “prayer for the untalented,” as he calls it, focusing on both their “plight” and the plight of those who teach them. He makes an impassioned plea for realism both about what intellectually ungifted and scholastically unmotivated students can achieve and about what the school system can do to solve society’s ills. DeBoer is a Marxist who hungers for a fully egalitarian society, lamenting the inequalities of privilege and wealth that characterize our own, but he does not believe that the educational system is the lever by which equality will be effected. The imposition of “higher standards” serves only to lower graduation rates, he argues, as well as to punish schools that lack the luxury to kick out struggling students. “Tell me how your students are getting assigned to your school,” he writes, “and I can predict your outcomes.”

DeBoer opens the book with a discussion of 2019’s Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel does the same in his new book The Tyranny of Merit. Both authors use this event to make the case that college admissions has become the fulcrum of our society’s meritocratic machine: your social “worth” is so deeply predicated on the college you attend that rich parents are willing to break the law to secure a slight rise in the tier of college to which their children gain acceptance. And the parents hid their actions from their children because they wanted them to feel they had earned this status.

But both Sandel and deBoer make clear that their target is not this group of lawbreakers. Nor is it parents who legally exchange massive donations for acceptances, or legacy admissions, or the fact that wealthier children are advantaged at every step along childhood’s journey—from prenatal lead exposure all the way to SAT prep courses and expensive, application-padding extracurriculars. The moral problem, for both authors, is not that we fail to live up to the ideal of meritocracy (though we do), but that we take it as an ideal in the first place. Any system that predicates economic and social status on academic performance is intrinsically bad.

Sandel, like deBoer, objects most fundamentally to meritocracy’s moral pretensions: if we believe that our success is up to us, we will credit ourselves for success and blame ourselves for failure. Meritocracy’s ethic of positive self-belief—what Sandel calls a “rhetoric of rising”— produces “morally unattractive attitudes” of hubris among winners and resentment among losers. This, in turn, leads to social strife and undermines social solidarity. Sandel ranges widely over the history and politics of meritocracy, rooting it in the Protestant ethic of work as (epistemic) proof of one’s moral worth. He locates the idea that the more productive should be reimbursed with more money in the classical economic liberalism of F. A. Hayek and Frank Knight and even the welfare state liberalism of John Rawls. Sandel acknowledges that that these thinkers justified their proposed social systems on the grounds of efficiency, explicitly denying any claim that the more productive were “more valuable” or “deserved more.” But Sandel nonetheless sees their views as the evolutionary ancestors of our current moral pretensions: “free-market liberalism and welfare state liberalism open the way to meritocratic understandings of success that they officially reject.”

A crucial step in Sandel’s telling of the genesis of meritocracy is the story of how former Harvard president James Conant transformed the university in the 1940s. By way of “a kind of quiet, planned coup d’etat,” Sandel explains, Conant instituted the SAT and re-imagined public schools as serving a sorting function: instead of being ends in themselves, they would become “reconstructed for [the] specific purpose” of serving as a recruiting ground for a new meritocratic elite. Conant was activating a plan once proposed by Thomas Jefferson, who had described it thus: “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed at the public expense.”

In the present day, Sandel identifies a very wide range of phenomena as either causes or effects of meritocracy: populist political upheaval; helicopter parenting; the rise of globalization, technocracy and anti-immigrant sentiment; the transition to a knowledge economy; the 2008 economic crisis; debates over climate change; cultural differences between Americans and Europeans; rising suicide rates among twenty to twenty-four year olds; rising inequality; the fall of manufacturing in the United States; credentialism. As his discussion wanders over this territory, the guiding thread is the claim that meritocracy organizes society into self-satisfied winners and bitter losers.

Sandel is clearly onto something in claiming that “one of the deepest divides in politics today is between those with and those without a college degree.” But I am not entirely persuaded by his story of a nation divided by hubris and resentment. For one thing, the empirical data he cites in painting a picture of the “winners” do not suggest self-satisfied complacency over having “earned” one’s status: he describes “a mental health epidemic among privileged youth” and “inordinate levels of emotional distress among young people from affluent families,” including those who end up at elite schools and show “unprecedented levels of distress.” That does not sound like hubris. As for the resentment he ascribes to non-elites: resentment is the characteristic attitude of those with less who believe they deserve more. If Sandel were correct that non-elites blamed themselves for their own failure, one would predict that the primary expression of this self-understanding would be shame and depression rather than resentment.

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Humans are given to hierarchy—we measure ourselves against those around us and strive to better our relative position—but we are, at the same time, unhappy that this is true of ourselves. This predicament is the product of two drives.

First, people are driven by a need for belonging, and a consequent motivation both to benefit the group and to be recognized as full-fledged members of it. Some positive words for this drive are “cooperative” and “selfless”; some negative ones are “conformist” and “sheep.” Second, people are inclined to hold themselves apart from the group, to stand out from it. When we approve of this inclination we describe it as “the pursuit of excellence” and call such a person “extraordinary” or “independent”; when we dislike it, we use words such as “uncooperative” and “egotistical” and accuse its bearer of “competitiveness” or “greediness.” Switching between positively and negatively charged terms is one of the ways we artificially fit these warring drives into one social order.

People want to stand out; people do not want to be alone. Sandel and deBoer are arguing that we should let up on the first desire in order to better satisfy the second: less hierarchy in exchange for more solidarity, compassion, and egalitarianism. Their books propose a shift in ideals: down with the language of striving, of opportunity, of individual achievement and self-belief and positive affirmation. They encourage us to see success as being due more to good fortune than earned by hard work, in the hopes that this less aspirational, more fatalistic approach will facilitate more group cohesion. An “ethic of fortune,” says Sandel, “appreciates the dimensions of life that exceed human understanding and control.”

This aim is nowhere more evident than in the concrete changes each book proposes to our current order: deBoer would like twelve-year-olds to be able to choose to drop out of school, and Sandel proposes a lottery for admission at elite colleges. While I do not doubt that each author believes the world would be improved by these proposals, their primary focus in these books is clearly not public policy: their concrete suggestions occupy only a few pages, located near the ends of their books. Rather, their main task is to indicate the direction in which our ideology—first our rhetoric, eventually our values—should shift. We need to learn to accept that some twelve-year-olds simply aren’t cut out for school; we should stop valorizing the selectivity of elite colleges.

What should we make of this project? Cultural shifts in ideology do happen, and Sandel and deBoer may be picking up on a trend: perhaps our society is on the verge of shifting to a less “stand out,” more “fit in” model. Indeed it is striking that Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist, has also criticized meritocracy along very similar lines: “the meritocratic order . . . insists that everything its high-achievers have is justly earned.” But as a philosophical matter, Sandel and deBoer have not made a convincing argument that we have good reason to give up on the rhetoric of “earning” and “achievement” and “aspiration.” This is because, while both authors emphatically insist that theirs is an attack on the concept of meritocracy itself, in fact their target only picks out an accident of our instantiation of it.

Let’s go back to our opening puzzle. Why are people more inclined to hold genetics responsible for (lack of) mental health than for (lack of) academic or intellectual achievement? I think this is less puzzling than deBoer and Alexander contend. There is a significant difference between these two cases. It is a scientific truth that a person’s life outcomes are, in a great variety of ways, a function of her genetic endowment (not just in matters of intelligence, however defined, but in many other behavioral and physical features, too). Nonetheless, the science of genetics cannot tell us what the ethical consequences of this truth are—and more specifically, science cannot tell us that the ethical consequences of this fact are uniform for all traits. So even if, from a genetic point of view, mental health and intelligence were equally heritable, that wouldn’t entail that our ethical responses to those facts should be the same. And in fact they arguably should not be.

Questions of mental health, weight regulation, or substance abuse are normatively bipartite: the relevant outcomes are either normal or abnormal. Achievement, by contrast, is normatively tripartite: it can be subnormal, normal, or supernormal. In the bipartite cases, we are faced only with the need to avoid blaming people for the subnormal condition, whereas in the tripartite cases we want to avoid blaming for subnormality and, in addition, we want to be able to credit and praise supernormality. In the bipartite cases, we get everything we want by ascribing outcomes to genetics—but doing so in the tripartite cases would thwart one of our (ethical) goals.

Let me illustrate with the case of athletics. Everyone knows that athletic achievement has a strong hereditary component, yet it is clear that we do not think of it as “entirely due to genes” or even “due to genes plus luck.” Athletic stars serve as inspirational figures for young people who take them to represent the possibility of making something great of oneself. Nature might give you height or quick reflexes, but athletic excellence also requires years of concerted effort. By dint of this effort, we think of the stars as having earned their accomplishments. There is no tension between thinking that most people are not cut out for athletic accomplishment and thinking that the ones who succeed do so on the strength of their efforts. To recognize and admire and credit the winners, you don’t need to think that an athletic failure—myself included—is to be blamed for insufficient effort. Kindness to athletic losers doesn’t need to be bought at the price of indifference to athletic winners.

The question of who we praise and who we blame is not a scientific question, but an ethical one; there is no way to answer it except by deliberating seriously about the kind of society we want to live in. In that spirit, I want to propose a new candidate for what the “the compassionate, sympathetic, progressive position” should look like. First, we should incline toward crediting people for their achievements as being genuinely their own, the justly earned fruits of hard work and diligence, deserving of pride and a sense of accomplishment. Second, we should incline toward explaining away failures on the basis of genes, socioeconomic obstacles, bad luck, and so on—things beyond their control—in such a way to make clear that the attitude called for in response to failure is sympathy and readiness to assist. The successful should be proud of themselves, and when they see others fail, they should think: there but for the grace of God go I.

People rarely, if ever, deserve to fail, but people typically deserve their successes. To prove that this asymmetry is coherent, consider the ethos among a group of striving friends. When one of my academic friends faces a professional setback—a paper rejection, a fruitless job search, being denied tenure—the rest of us respond with sympathy and compassion.  We do not say, “This was your fault for not working hard enough.” Except under truly extraordinary circumstances, we do not take ourselves to be in the business of blaming, faulting, and condemning our friends. But when that same person achieves some triumph, we would typically congratulate her for the fruits of her efforts. We credit her for her accomplishments without blaming her for her failures. One should not assume that this situation must boil down either to amiable exaggeration of someone’s role in her triumphs or to well-meant but deceptive downplaying of her responsibility for her failures. There need be no white lies involved in our response, because it is ethically correct to respond asymmetrically to the role of chance in success and failure. The simple fact is that you can praise a student for his A without blaming him for his C. And this is, in fact, usually how you should act.

I believe we should credit all achievements, including those of the privileged: the talents of the rich do not magically develop themselves. But we should also recognize that when people had to overcome substantial obstacles to get where they are, they objectively achieved more, and deserve to be even prouder of themselves. We can say this without discrediting those who faced fewer obstacles, and of course as a society we should aim to remove as many of those obstacles as possible—while recognizing the truth of Sandel and deBoer’s observation that the playing field will never be fully even, because some of the “obstacles” are internal. Still, respecting the essential unevenness of the playing field is, contrary to what Sandel and deBoer contend, compatible with crediting achievement. It wouldn’t be compatible if crediting achievement entailed faulting lack of achievement. But that would only be the case if achievement were normatively bipartite; in fact, it is tripartite.

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Let me conclude by bringing these philosophical reflections on achievement to bear on our socioeconomic system for distributing material rewards and social status—for it is at this edifice that Sandel’s and deBoer’s objections are ultimately directed. The argument I have given offers a way of separating our answer to the question of how we should distribute pluses such as riches, honors, fame, and recognition from our answer to the question of how we should distribute minuses such as poverty, shame, suffering, and precarity.

Depriving someone of the basics needed to live a decent life is a form of punishment, and arguably no one—except perhaps one guilty of grievous wrongdoing—deserves that. You can think that everyone deserves a decent life and also think that some people deserve more than that, in virtue of what they have achieved. And—this is what comes of accepting the asymmetry I’ve been arguing for—you can think that person A deserves material or social rewards for achievements that person B had no chance to produce (say, for genetic reasons, or due to sexism, or pure bad luck). The fact that chance played a role in A’s success does not invalidate our rewarding him for it. But the fact that we can and should reward A does not entail that we are permitted to punish B for her lack of success. B deserves a decent life, even if she never earned the rewards we (justifiably) give only to A.

Because deBoer and Sandel take aim at the legitimacy of dipping below decency, they do not give any independent argument concerning the desert of those in the upper half of the distribution of outcomes—but that is really where meritocracy resides. Meritocracy is about rewarding success, not punishing failure. Consider the famous “motivational” speech from the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross:

We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is, you’re fired.

All of us feel a jolt between second and third prize. That is the moment when “meritocracy” gets twisted and deformed into something punitive and vile. If our system of distributing meritocratic rewards to achievers depends on distributing degrading punishments to non-achievers, that is a strike against our meritocracy, not against meritocracy itself. Insofar as meritocracy ends up not only determining the extremes of success but also condemning non-achievers as worthless, that is a corruption of meritocracy, to be condemned alongside better-recognized corruptions such as racism and sexism. This is why I say that Sandel and deBoer have conflated an accidental imperfection of one (punitive) mode of meritocracy with a critique of meritocracy itself.

Of course the ethics of success is full of knotty problems. It is not easy to draw the line between what is given only on the grounds of talent and effort, on the one hand, and what belongs to all, regardless of achievement, on the other. The question “how much is enough for a decent life?” is difficult to answer, and on top of the intrinsic difficulty, the answer shifts over time. Education is, and perhaps will always be, a battleground, and one way to interpret Sandel and deBoer’s proposed policy interventions is to see them as disagreeing over where to draw the line in that arena. DeBoer’s suggestion that we become willing to exempt some twelve-year-olds from further schooling is a way of drawing the line relatively low—high school is already “extra”—whereas Sandel’s suggestion of lottery-based college admissions draws the line high: even college education should not be allocated on the basis of talent, promise, or achievement.

Constructing a non-punitive meritocracy is not at all straightforward—any more than constructing a non-racist or non-sexist meritocracy, or one that is not biased in favor of the rich. But it is a worthy project, because a non-punitive meritocracy holds out the prospect of combining—not merely in words, but in reality—our desire for cooperative communitarian harmony with our commitment to individual excellence and achievement. Sandel and deBoer urge us to sacrifice the latter at the altar of the former. But that wouldn’t be necessary if we could achieve both goals. A kinder, more compassionate, more progressive—which is to say, less punitive—meritocracy would give us the best of all worlds.

For both authors the fundamental question is not about how to tinker with our current system at the margins but what kind of ideal we should set our sights on—even if it is not necessarily immediately realizable. DeBoer’s book ends with a panegyric description of a post-revolutionary Marxist “utopia” of which he acknowledges: “Some will, no doubt, call this fantasy. They will say that such a society cannot exist.” But this vision is predicated on a mistake: he assumes that we have to give up on meritocratic rewards in order to free ourselves from the scourge of meritocratic punishment. I say, as long as we’re dreaming, let’s dream bigger.

Posted in Meritocracy, Populism, Welfare

Hochschild — Strangers in Their Own Land

This post is a reflection on a book by Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  In it she provides one of the most compelling and persuasive explanation for the turn toward right-wing populism in American politics and the peculiar appeal of Donald Trump.  As she puts it in her subtitle, this is “A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide.”

The book, published in 2016, is based on intensive interviews that she did in Louisiana with people on the populist right, long before Trump launched his campaign for president.  At the time, the political movement was the Tea Party, but her subjects ended up providing her an advance look at at the deep issues that led voters to support Trump.

There is no substitute for reading the book, which I strongly recommend.  But to whet your appetite, I provide some of the key points below and some of the most telling quotes.  You’ll find that a lot or her analysis aligns with the analysis by Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit, which I commented on recently.

Hochschild Cover

Here’s the heart of what people were telling her:

You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored you have to feel—and feel seen as—moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.

As Sandel noted, the meritocracy leaves the uncredentialed with no basis for public respect.  Without SATs and fancy degrees, it’s like you don’t count or you don’t even exist.  This used to be your country and there used to be honor in simply doing your job, going to church, obeying the law, and raising a family, but none of that seems to be true any more.  Respect only now seems to go to those who who are moving ahead in the new knowledge economy, but you and people around you seem to be barely holding your own or falling behind.  

How do you handle this situation?  Not by playing the victim card; that’s for a different kind of person.  “Like nearly everyone I spoke with, Donny was not one to think of himself as a victim. That was the language of the ‘poor me’s’ asking for government handouts. The very word ‘victim’ didn’t sit right.”  Instead, you take stoic stance, adopting one of three versions of what Hochschild calls the “endurance self.”

I was discovering three distinct expressions of this endurance self in different people around Lake Charles—the Team Loyalist, the Worshipper, and the Cowboy, as I came to see them. Each kind of person expresses the value of endurance and expresses a capacity for it. Each attaches an aspect of self to this heroism. The Team Loyalist accomplishes a team goal, supporting the Republican Party. The Worshipper sacrifices a strong wish. The Cowboy affirms a fearless self. 

Each identity involves holding on in spite of the sacrifices you have to make.  The Loyalist sticks by the Republican Party even though it keeps betraying you time and again, as is so often the case in Louisiana.  They allow companies to pollute your environment and skimp on their taxes, but they’re still all you’ve got.  

The Worshipper keeps the faith even though it means giving up something you really care about.

But sometimes you had to do without what you wanted. You couldn’t have both the oil industry and clean lakes, she thought, and if you had to choose, you had to choose oil. “Oil’s been pretty darned good to us,” she said. “I don’t want a smaller house. I don’t want to drive a smaller car.”

So you hang in there.  The Cowboy understands character as a willingness to take risks and live with the consequences.  You can make it on your own, without having to rely on welfare and special privileges.

To Donny, the Cowboy expressed high moral virtue. Equating creativity with daring—the stuff of great explorers, inventors, generals, winners—Donny honored the capacity to take risk and face fear. He could take hard knocks like a man. He could endure. 

The people she spoke with had a deep suspicion of the state.

“The state always seems to come down on the little guy,” he notes. “Take this bayou. If your motorboat leaks a little gas into the water, the warden’ll write you up. But if companies leak thousands of gallons of it and kill all the life here? The state lets them go. If you shoot an endangered brown pelican, they’ll put you in jail. But if a company kills the brown pelican by poisoning the fish he eats? They let it go. I think they overregulate the bottom because it’s harder to regulate the top.”

For liberals, this stance is hard to fathom, because for them the institutions of the state are the key guardians of the public square, which is central to their values.  And this space is now under threat.

…In the liberal deep story, an alarming event occurs; marauders invade the public square, recklessly dismantle it, and selfishly steal away bricks and concrete chunks from the public buildings at its center. Seeing insult added to injury, those guarding the public square watch helplessly as those who’ve dismantled it construct private McMansions with the same bricks and pieces of concrete, privatizing the public realm. That’s the gist of the liberal deep story, and the right can’t understand the deep pride liberals take in their creatively designed, hard-won public sphere as a powerful integrative force in American life. Ironically, you may have more in common with the left than you imagine, for many on the left feel like strangers in their own land too.

For right-wing populists, the federal government is the biggest threat.  For those in the West, the feds are the ones who seem to own all the land and regulate what you can do with it.  In the South, the resentments runs even deeper.

After the Civil War, the North replaced Southern state governments with its own hand-picked governors. The profit-seeking carpetbaggers came, it seemed to those I interviewed, as agents of the dominating North. Exploiters from the North, an angry, traumatized black population at home, and moral condemnation from all—this was the scene some described to me. When the 1960s began sending Freedom Riders and civil rights activists, pressing for new federal laws to dismantle Jim Crow, there they came again, it seemed, the moralizing North. And again, Obamacare, global warming, gun control, abortion rights—did these issues, too, fall into the emotional grooves of history? Does it feel like another strike from the North, from Washington, that has put the brown pelican ahead of the Tea Partier waiting in line?

And then there’s the last issue:  waiting in line.  Hochschild identifies a deep story that runs through all of the accounts she heard, and at the heart is a sense of resentment about being treated unfairly in the pursuit of the American Dream.  The dream is all about the possibilities for getting ahead, and this means an orderly process of status advancement in which people wait in line until it’s their turn.  The core problem is that suddenly they find other people cutting in front of them in line, and the federal government is helping them do it.

Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t. As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they? Some are black. Through affirmative action plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches…. Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with. These are opportunities you’d have loved to have had in your day—and either you should have had them when you were young or the young shouldn’t be getting them now. It’s not fair.

You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. So you have your guard up against requests for sympathy. People complain: Racism. Discrimination. Sexism. You’ve heard stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate refugees, but at some point, you say to yourself, you have to close the borders to human sympathy—especially if there are some among them who might bring you harm. You’ve suffered a good deal yourself, but you aren’t complaining about it.

Posted in History of education, Public Good, Schooling, Welfare

Public Schooling as Social Welfare

This post is a follow-up to a piece I posted three weeks ago, which was Michael Katz’s 2020 essay, Public Education as Welfare.  Below is my own take on this subject, which I wrote for a book that will be published in recognition of the hundredth anniversary of the Horace Mann League.  The tentative title of the book is Public Education: The Cornerstone of American Democracy and the editors are David Berliner and Carl Hermanns.  All of the contributions focus on the role that public schools play in American life.  Here’s a link to a pdf of my piece.

Public Schooling as Social Welfare

David F. Labaree

            In the mid nineteenth century, Horace Mann made a forceful case for a distinctly political vision of public schooling, as a mechanism for creating citizens for the American republic. In the twentieth century, policymakers put forth an alternative economic vision for this institution, as a mechanism for turning out productive workers to promote growth of the American economy. In this essay, I explore a third view of public schooling, which is less readily recognizable than the other two but no less important.  This is a social vision, in which public schooling serves as a mechanism for promoting social welfare, by working to ameliorate the inequalities of American society.  

All three of these visions construe public schooling as a public good.  As a public good, its benefits flow to the entire community, including those who never attended school, by enriching the broad spectrum of political, economic, and social life.  But public schooling is also a private good.  As such, its benefits accrue only to its graduates, who use their diplomas to gain selective access to jobs at the expense of those who lack these credentials. 

Consider the relative costs and benefits of these two types of goods.  Investing in public goods is highly inclusive, in that every dollar invested goes to support the common weal.  But at the same time this investment is also highly contingent, since individuals will gain the benefits even if they don’t contribute, getting a free ride on the contributions of others.  The usual way around the free rider problem is to make such investment mandatory for everyone through the mechanism of taxation.  By contrast, investment in private goods is self-sustaining, with no state action needed.  Individuals have a strong incentive to invest because only they gain the benefit.  In addition, as a private good its effects are highly exclusive, benefiting some people at the expense of others and thus tending to increase social inequality. 

Like the political and economic visions of schooling, the welfare vision carries the traits of its condition as a public good.  Its scope is inclusive, its impact is egalitarian, and its sustainability depends heavily on state mandate.  But it lacks a key advantage shared by the other two, whose benefits clearly flow to the population as a whole.  Everyone benefits by being part of a polity in which citizens are capable, law abiding, and informed.  Everyone benefits by being part of an economy in which workers contribute productively to the general prosperity. 

In contrast, however, it’s less obvious that everyone benefits from transferring public resources to disadvantaged citizens in order to improve their quality of life.  The word welfare carries a foul odor in American politics, redolent of laziness, bad behavior, and criminality.  It’s so bad that in 1980 the federal government changed the name of the Department Health, Education, and Welfare to Health and Human Services just to get rid of the stigmatized term.

So one reason that the welfare function doesn’t jump to mind when you think of schools is that we really don’t want to associate the two.  Don’t besmirch schooling by calling it welfare.  Michael Katz caught this feeling in the opening sentences of his 2010 essay, “Public Education as Welfare,” which serves as a reference point for my own essay:  “Welfare is the most despised public institution in America. Public education is the most iconic. To associate them with each other will strike most Americans as bizarre, even offensive.”  But let’s give it a try anyway.

My own essay arises from the time when I’m writing it – the summer of 2020 during the early phases of Covid-19 pandemic.  Like everyone else in the US, I watched in amazement this spring when schools suddenly shut down across the country and students started a new regime of online learning from home.  It started me thinking about what schools mean to us, what they do for us. 

Often it’s only when an institution goes missing that we come to recognize its value.  After the Covid shutdown, parents, children, officials, and citizens discovered just what they lost when the kids came home to stay.  You could hear voices around the country and around the globe pleading, “When are schools going to open again?”

I didn’t hear people talking much about the other two public goods views of schooling.  There wasn’t a groundswell of opinion complaining about the absence of citizenship formation or the falloff of human capital production.  Instead, there was a growing awareness of the various social welfare functions of schooling that were now suddenly gone.  Here are a few, in no particular order.

Schools are the main source of child care for working parents.  When schools close, someone needs to stay home to take care of the younger children.  For parents with the kind of white collar jobs that allow them to work from home, this causes a major inconvenience as they try to juggle work and child care and online schooling.  But for parents who can’t phone in their work, having to stay home with the kids is a huge financial sacrifice, and it’s even bigger for single parents in this category.

Schools are a key place for children to get healthy meals.  In the U.S., about 30 million students receive free or discounted lunch (and often breakfast) at school every day.  It’s so common that researchers use the proportion of “students on free or reduced lunch” as a measure of the poverty rate in individual schools.  When schools close, these children go hungry.  In response to this problem, a number of closed school systems have continued to prepare these meals for parents to pick up and take home with them.

Schools are crucial for the health of children.  In the absence of universal health care in the U.S., schools have served as a frail substitute.  They require all students to have vaccinations.  They provide health education.  And they have school nurses who can check for student ailments and make referrals.

Schools are especially important for dealing with the mental health of young people.  Teachers and school psychologists can identify mental illness and serve as prompts for getting students treatment.  Special education programs identify developmental disabilities in students and devise individualized plans for treating them.

Schools serve as oases for children who are abused at home.  Educators are required by law to look out for signs of mental or physical abuse and to report these cases to authorities.  When schools close, these children are trapped in abusive settings at home, which gives the lie to the idea of sheltering in place.  For many students, the true shelter is the school itself.  In the absence of teacher referrals, agencies reported a sharp drop-off in the reports of child abuse.

Schools are domains for relative safety for students who live in dangerous neighborhoods.  For many kids, who live in settings with gangs and drugs and crime, getting to and from school is the most treacherous part of the day.  Once inside the walls of the school, they are relatively free of physical threats.  Closing school doors to students puts them at risk.

Schools are environments that are often healthier than their own homes.  Students in wealthy neighborhoods may look on schools in poor neighborhoods as relatively shabby and depressing, but for many children the buildings have a degree of heat, light, cleanliness, and safety that they can’t find at home.  These schools may not have swimming pools and tennis courts, but they also don’t have rats and refuse.

Schools may be the only institutional setting for many kids in which the professional norm is to serve the best interests of the child.  We know that students can be harmed by schools.  All it takes is a bully or a disparaging judgment.  The core of the educator’s job is to foster growth, spur interest, increase knowledge, enhance skill, and promote development.  Being cut off from such an environment for a long period of time is a major loss for any student, rich or poor.

Schools are one of the few places in American life where young people undergo a shared experience.  This is especially true at the elementary level, where most children in a neighborhood attend the same school and undergo a relatively homogeneous curriculum.  It’s less true in high school, where the tracked curriculum provides more divergent experiences.  A key component of the shared experience is that it places you face-to-face with students who may be different from you.  As we have found, when you turn schooling into online learning, you tend to exacerbate social differences, because students are isolated in disparate family contexts where there is a sharp divide in internet access. 

Schools are where children socialize with each other.  A key reason kids want to go to school is because that’s where their friends are.  It’s where they make friends they otherwise would have never meet, learn to maintain these friendships, and learn how to manage conflicts.  Humans are thoroughly social animals, who need interaction with others in order to grow and thrive.  So being cooped up at home leaves everyone, but especially children, without a central component of human existence.

Schools are the primary public institution for overseeing the development of young children into healthy and capable adults.  Families are the core private institution engaged in this process, but schools serve as the critical intermediary between family and the larger society.  They’re the way our children learn now to live and engage with other people’s children, and they’re a key way that society seeks to ameliorate social differences that might impede children’s development, serving as what Mann called the “a great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

These are some aspects of schooling that we take for granted but don’t think about very much.  For policymakers, these they may be considered side effects of the school’s academic mission, but for many (maybe most) families they are a main effect.  And the various social support roles that schools play are particularly critical in a country like the United States, where the absence of a robust social welfare system means that schools stand as the primary alternative.  School’s absence made the heart grow fonder for it.  We all become aware of just how much schools do for us.

Systems of universal public schooling did not arise in order to promote social welfare.  During the last 200 years, in countries around the world, the impetus came from the kind of political rationale that Horace Mann so eloquently put forward.  Public schools emerged as part of the process of creating nation states.  Their function was to turn subjects of the crown into citizens of the nation, or, as Eugen Weber put it in the title of his wonderful book, to turn Peasants into Frenchmen.  Schools took localized populations with regional dialects and traditional authority relations and helped affiliate these populations with an imagined community called France or the United States.  They created a common language (in case of France, it was Parisian French), a shared sense of national membership, and a shared educational experience. 

This is the origin story of public schooling.  But once schools became institutionalized and the state’s existence grew relatively secure, they began to accumulate other functions, both private (gaining an edge in the competition for social position) and public (promoting economic growth and supporting social welfare).  In different countries these functions took different forms, and the load the state placed on schooling varied considerably.  The American case, as is so often true, was extreme.

The U.S. bet the farm on the public school.  It was relatively early in establishing a system of publicly funded and governed schools across the country in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.  But it was way ahead of European countries in its rapid upward expansion of the system.  Universal enrollment moved quickly from primary school to grammar school to high school.  By 1900, the average American teenager had completed eight years of schooling.  This led to a massive surge in high school enrollments, which doubled every decade between 1890 and 1940.  By 1951, 75 percent of 16-year olds were enrolled in high school compared to only 14 percent in the United Kingdom.   In the three decades after the Second World War, the surge spilled over into colleges, with the rate of enrollment between 1950 and 1980 rising from 9 to 40 percent of the eligible population.

The US system had an indirect connection to welfare even before it started acting as a kind of social service agency.  The short version of the story is this.  In the second part of the nineteenth century, European countries like Disraeli’s United Kingdom and Bismarck’s Germany set up the framework for a welfare state, with pensions and other elements of a safety net for the working class.  The U.S. chose not to take this route, which it largely deferred until the 1930s.  Instead it put its money on schooling.  The vision was to provide individuals with educational opportunities to get ahead on their own rather than to give them direct aid to improve their current quality of life.  The idea was to focus on developing a promising future rather than on meeting current needs.  People were supposed to educate their way out of poverty, climbing up the ladder with the help of state schooling.  The fear was that provide direct relief for food, clothing, and shelter – the dreaded dole – would only stifle their incentive to get ahead.  Better to stimulate the pursuit of future betterment rather to run the risk that people might get used to subsisting comfortably in the present. 

By nature, schooling is a forward-looking enterprise.  Its focus is on preparing students for their future roles as citizens, workers, and members of society rather than on helping them deal with their current living conditions.  By setting up an educational state rather than a welfare state, the U.S. in effect chose to write off the parents, seen as a lost cause, and concentrate instead on providing opportunities to the children, seen as still salvageable. 

In the twentieth century, spurred by the New Deal’s response to the Great Depression, the U.S. developed the rudiments of a welfare state, with pensions and then health care for the elderly, temporary cash support and health care for the poor, and unemployment insurance for the worker.  At the same time, schools began to deal with the problems arising from poverty that students brought with them to the classroom.  This was propelled by a growing understanding that hungry, sick, and abused children are not going to able to take advantage of educational opportunities in order to attain a better life in the future.  Schooling alone couldn’t provide the chance for schooling to succeed.  Thus the introduction of free meals, the school nurse, de facto day care, and other social-work activities in the school. 

The tale of the rise of the social welfare function of the American public school, therefore, is anything but a success story.  Rather, it’s a story of one failure on top of another.  First is the failure to deal directly with social inequality in American life, when instead we chose to defer the intervention to the future by focusing on educating children while ignoring their parents.  Second, when poverty kept interfering with the schooling process, we introduced rudimentary welfare programs into the school in order give students a better chance, while still leaving poor parents to their own devices. 

As with the American welfare system in general, school welfare is not much but it’s better than nothing.  Carrying on the pattern set in the nineteenth century, we are still shirking responsibility for dealing directly with poverty through the political system by opposing universal health care and a strong safety net.  Instead, we continue to put our money on schooling as the answer when the real solution lies elsewhere.  Until we decide to implement that solution, however, schooling is all we’ve got. 

In the meantime, schools serve as the wobbly but indispensable balance wheel of American social life.  Too bad it took a global pandemic to get us to realize what we lose when schools close down.

Posted in History, Schooling, Welfare

Michael Katz — Public Education as Welfare

In this post, I reproduce a seminal essay by Michael Katz called “Public Education as Welfare.” It was originally published in Dissent in 2010 (link to the original) and it draws on his book, The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State.  

I encountered this essay when I was working on a piece of my own about the role that US public schools play as social welfare agencies.  My interest emerged from an op-ed about what is lost when schools close that I published a couple weeks ago and then posted here.  Michael was my dissertation advisor back at Penn, and I remembered he had written about the connection between schooling and welfare.  As you’ll see when I publish my essay here in a week or so, my focus is on the welfare function of schooling in companion with its other functions: building political community, promoting economic growth, and providing advantage in the competition for social position.  

Katz takes a much broader approach, seeking to locate schools as a central component of the peculiar form of the American welfare state.  He does a brilliant job of locating schooling in relation to the complex array of other public and private programs that constitute this rickety and fiendishly complex structure.  Enjoy.

Katz Cover

Public Education as Welfare

Michael B. Katz

Welfare is the most despised public institution in America. Public education is the most iconic. To associate them with each other will strike most Americans as bizarre, even offensive. Thelin would be less surprising to nineteenth century reformers for whom crime, poverty, and ignorance formed an unholy trinity against which they struggled. Nor would it raise British eyebrows. Ignorance was one of the “five giants” to be slain by the new welfare state proposed in the famous Beveridge Report. National health insurance, the cornerstone of the British welfare state, and the 1944 Education Act, which introduced the first national system of secondary education to Britain, were passed by Parliament only two years apart. Yet, in the United States, only a few students of welfare and education have even suggested that the two might stand together.

Why this mutual neglect? And how does public education fit into the architecture of the welfare state? It is important to answer these questions. Both the welfare state and the public school system are enormous and in one way or another touch every single American. Insight into the links between the two will illuminate the mechanisms through which American governments try to accomplish their goals; and it will show how institutions whose public purpose is egalitarian in fact reproduce inequality.

The definition and boundaries of the welfare state remain contentious topics. I believe that the “term “welfare state” refers to a collection of programs designed to assure economic security to all citizens by guaranteeing the fundamental necessities of life: food, shelter, medical care, protection in childhood, and support in old age. In the United States, the term generally excludes private efforts to provide these goods. But the best way to understand a nation’s welfare state is not to apply a theoretically driven definition but, rather, to examine the mechanisms through which legislators, service providers, and employers, whether public, private, or a mix of the two, try to prevent or respond to poverty, illness, dependency, economic security, and old age.

Where does public education fit within this account? First, most concretely, for more than century schools have been used as agents of the welfare state to deliver social services, such as nutrition and health. Today, in poor neighborhoods, they often provide hot breakfasts among other services. More to the point, public school systems administer one of the nation’s largest programs of economic redistribution. Most accounts of the financing of public education stress the opposite point by highlighting inequities, “savage inequalities,” to borrow Jonathan Kool’s phrase, that shortchange city youngsters and racial minorities. These result mostly from the much higher per-pupil spending in affluent suburbs than in poor inner cities, where yields from property taxes are much lower. All this is undeniable as well as unacceptable.

But tilt the angle and look at the question from another perspective. Consider how much the average family with children pays in property taxes, the principal support for schools. Then focus on per-pupil expenditure, even in poor districts. You will find that families, including poor city families, receive benefits worth much more than they have contributed. Wealthier families, childless and empty-nest couples, and businesses subsidize families with children in school.

There is nothing new about this. The mid-nineteenth-century founders of public school systems, like Horace Mann, and their opponents understood the redistributive character of public education. To build school systems, early school promoters needed to persuade the wealthy and childless that universal, free education would their interests by reducing the incidence of crime, lowering the cost of poor relief, improving the skills and attitudes of workers, assimilating immigrants—and therefore saving them money in the long run. So successful were early school promoters that taxation for public education lost its controversial quality. With just a few exceptions, debates focused on the amount of taxes, not on their legitimacy. The exceptions occurred primarily around the founding of high schools that working-class and other voters correctly observed would serve only a small fraction of families at a time when most youngsters in their early teens were sent out to work or kept at home to help their families. For the most part, however, the redistributive quality of public education sank further from public consciousness. This is what early school promoters wanted and had worked to make happen. When they began their working the early nineteenth century, “public” usually referred to schools widely available and either free or cheap—in short, schools for the poor. School promoters worked tirelessly to break this link between public and pauper that inhibited the development of universal public education systems. So successful were they that today the linkage seems outrageous—though in cities where most of the remaining affluent families send their children to private schools, the association of public with pauper has reemerged with renewed ferocity.

As a concrete example, here is a back-of-the envelope illustration. In 2003–2004, public elementary and secondary education in the United States cost $403 billion or, on average, $8,310 per student (or, taking the median, $7,860). Most families paid nothing like the full cost of this education in taxes. Property taxes, which account for a huge share of spending on public schools, average $935 per person or, for family of four, something under $4,000, less than half the average per-pupil cost. As rough as these figures are, they do suggest that most families with school-age children receive much more from spending on public education than they contribute in taxes. (A similar point could be made about public higher education.)

Taxpayers provide this subsidy because they view public education as a crucial public good. It prevents poverty, lowers the crime rate, prepares young people for the work force, and fosters social mobility—or so the story goes. The reality, as historians of education have shown, is a good deal more complex. Public education is the mechanism through which the United States solves problems and attempts to reach goals achieved more directly or through different mechanisms in other countries. International comparisons usually brand the United States a welfare laggard because it spends less of its national income on welfare related benefits than do other advanced industrial democracies. But the comparisons leave out spending on public education, private social services, employer-provided health care and pensions, and benefits delivered through the tax code, a definitional weakness whose importance will become clearer when I describe the architecture of the welfare state.

***

Almost thirty-five years ago, in Social Control of the Welfare State, Morris Janowitz pointed out that “the most significant difference between the institutional bases of the welfare state in Great Britain and the United States was the emphasis placed on public education—especially for lower income groups—in the United States. Massive support for the expansion of public education . . . in the United States must be seen as a central component of the American notion of welfare . . .” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while other nations were introducing unemployment, old age, and health insurance, the United States was building high schools for a huge surge in enrollment. “One would have to return to the 1910s to find levels of secondary school enrollment in the United States that match those in 1950s Western Europe,” point out economists Claudia Golden and Lawrence F. Katz in The Race Between Education and Technology. European nations were about generation behind the United States in expanding secondary education; the United States was about a generation behind Europe in instituting its welfare state.

If we think of education as a component, wean see that the U.S. welfare state focuses on enhancing equality of opportunity in contrast to European welfare states, which have been more sympathetic to equality of condition. In the United States, equality always has primarily about a level playing field where individuals can compete unhindered by obstacles that crimp the full expression of their native talents; education has served as the main mechanism for leveling the field. European concepts of equality more often focus on group inequality and the collective mitigation of handicaps and risks that, in the United States, have been left for individuals to deal with on their own.

***

Public education is part of the American welfare state. But which one? Each part is rooted in a different place in American history. Think of the welfare state as a loosely constructed, largely unplanned structure erected by many different people over centuries. This rickety structure, which no sane person would have designed, consists of two main divisions, the public and private welfare states, with subdivisions within each. The divisions of the public welfare state are public assistance, social insurance, and taxation. Public assistance (called outdoor relief through most of its history) originated with the Elizabethan poor laws brought over by the colonists. It consists of means-tested benefits. Before 1996, the primary example was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and since 1996, it has been Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)—the programs current-day Americans usually have in mind when they speak of “welfare.”

Social insurance originated in Europe in the late nineteenth century and made its way slowly to the United States. The first form of U.S. social insurance was workers’ compensation, instituted by several state governments in the early twentieth century. Social insurance benefits accrue to individuals on account of fixed criteria such as age. They are called insurance because they are allegedly based on prior contributions. The major programs—Social Security for the elderly and unemployment insurance—emerged in 1935 when Congress passed the Social Security Act. Social insurance benefits are much higher than benefits provided through public assistance, and they carry no stigma.

The third track in the public welfare state is taxation. U.S. governments, both federal and state, administer important benefits through the tax code rather than through direct grants. Thesis the most modern feature of the welfare state. The major example of a benefit aimed at poor people is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which expanded greatly during the Clinton presidency.

Within the private welfare state are two divisions: charities and social services and employee benefits. Charities and social services have along and diverse history. In the 1960s, governments started to fund an increasing number of services through private agencies. (In America, governments primarily write checks; they do not usually operate programs.) More and more dependent on public funding, private agencies increasingly became, in effect, government providers, a transformation with profound implications for their work. Employee benefits constitute the other division in the private welfare state. These date primarily from the period after the Second World War. They expanded as a result of the growth of unions, legitimated by the 1935 Wagner Act and 1949 decisions of the National Labor Relations Board, which held that employers were required to bargain over, though not required to provide, employee benefits.

Some economists object to including these benefits within the welfare state, but they are mistaken. Employee benefits represent the mechanism through which the United States has chosen to meet the health care needs of majority of its population. About 60 percent of Americans receive their health insurance through their employer, and many receive pensions as well. If unions had bargained hard for a public rather than a private welfare state, the larger American welfare state would look very different. Moreover, the federal government encourages the delivery of healthcare and pensions through private employers by allowing them to deduct the cost from taxes, and it supervises them with massive regulations, notably the Employee Retirement Security Act of 1974.

The first thing to stress about this welfare state is that its divisions are not distinct. They overlap and blend in complicated ways, giving the American welfare state a mixed economy not usefully described as either public or private. At the same time, federalism constrains its options, with some benefits provided by federal government and others offered through state and local governments. Throughout the twentieth century, one great problem facing would-be welfare state builders was designing benefits to pass constitutional muster.

How does public education fit into this odd, bifurcated structure? It shares characteristics with social insurance, public assistance, and social services. At first, it appears closest to social insurance. Its benefits are universal and not means tested, which makes them similar to Social Security (although Social Security benefits received by high income individuals are taxed). But education benefits are largely in kind, as are food stamps, housing, and Medicare. (In-kind benefits are “government provision of goods and services to those in need of them” rather than of “income sufficient to meet their needs via the market.”) Nor are the benefits earned by recipients through prior payroll contributions or employment. This separates them from Social Security, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation. Public education is also an enormous source of employment, second only to health care in the public welfare state.

Even more important, public education is primarily local. Great variation exists among states and, within states, among municipalities. In this regard, it differs completely from Social Security and Medicare, whose nationally-set benefits are uniform across the nation. It is more like unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and TANF (and earlier AFDC), which vary by state, but not by municipality within states. The adequacy of educational benefits, by contrast, varies with municipal wealth. Education, in fact, is the only public benefit financed largely by property taxes. This confusing mix of administrative and financial patterns provides another example of how history shapes institutions and policy.

Because of its differences from both social insurance and public assistance, public education composes a separate division within the public welfare state. But it moves in the same directions as the rest. The forces redefining the American welfare state have buffeted public schools as well as public assistance, social insurance, and private welfare.

***

Since the 1980s, the pursuit of three objectives has driven change in the giant welfare state edifice. These objectives are, first, a war on dependence in all its forms—not only the dependence of young unmarried mothers on welfare but all forms of dependence on public and private support, including the dependence of workers on paternalistic employers for secure, long-term jobs and benefits. Second is the devolution of authority—the transfer of power from the federal government to the states, from states to localities, and from the public to the private sector. Last is the application of free market models to social policy. Everywhere the market triumphed as template for a reengineered welfare state. This is not a partisan story. Broad consensus on these objectives crossed party lines. Within the reconfigured welfare state, work in the regular labor market emerged as the gold standard, the mark of first-class citizenship, carrying with it entitlement to the most generous benefits. The corollary, of course, was that failure or inability to join the regular labor force meant relegation to second-class citizenship, where benefits were mean, punitive, or just unavailable.

The war on dependence, the devolution of authority, and the application of market models also run through the history of public education in these decades. The attack on “social promotion,” emphasis on high-stakes tests, implementation of tougher high school graduation requirements, and transmutation of “accountability” into the engine of school reform: all these developments are of a piece with the war on dependence. They call for students to stand on their own with rewards distributed strictly according to personal (testable) merit. Other developments point to the practice of devolution in public education. Prime example is the turn toward site-based management—that is, the decentralization of significant administrative authority from central offices to individual schools. The most extreme example is Chicago’s 1989 school reform, which put local school councils in charge of each school, even giving them authority to hire and fire principals.

At the same time, a countervailing trend, represented by the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind legislation and the imposition of standards, limited the autonomy of teachers and schools and imposed new forms of centralization. At least, that was the intent. In fact, left to develop their own standards, many states avoided penalties mandated in No Child Left Behind by lowering the bar and making it easier for students to pass the required tests. In 2010, the nation’s governors and state school superintendents convened a panel of experts to reverse this race to the bottom. The panel recommended combining a set of national standards—initially for English and math—with local autonomy in curriculum design and teaching methods. The Obama administration endorsed the recommendations and included them in its educational reform proposals.

In this slightly schizoid blend of local autonomy and central control, trends in public education paralleled developments in the administration of public assistance: the 1996 federal “welfare reform” legislation mandated asset of outcomes but left states autonomy in reaching them. In both education and public assistance, the mechanism of reform became the centralization of acceptable outcomes and the decentralization of the means for achieving them.

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As for the market as a template for reform, it was everywhere in education as well as the rest of the welfare state. Markets invaded schools with compulsory viewing of the advertising on Chris Whittle’s Channel One “free” television news for schools, and with the kickbacks to schools from Coke, Pepsi, and other products sold in vending machines—money schools desperately needed as their budgets for sports, arts, and culture were cut. Some school districts turned over individual schools to for-profit corporations such as Edison Schools, while advocacy of vouchers and private charter schools reflected the belief that blending competition among providers with parental choice would expose poorly performing schools and teachers and motivate others to improve.

Unlike the situation in the rest of the welfare state, educational benefits cannot be tied to employment. But they are stratified nonetheless by location, wealth, and race. The forces eroding the fiscal capacities of cities and old suburbs—withdrawal of federal aid and shrinking tax base—have had a devastating impact on public education and on children and adolescents, relegating a great many youngsters living in poor or near-poor families to second class citizenship. In the educational division of the public welfare state test results play the role taken on elsewhere by employment. They are gatekeepers to the benefits of first-class citizenship. The danger is that high-stakes tests and stiffer graduation requirements will further stratify citizenship among the young, with kids failing tests joining stay-at-home mothers and out-of-work black men as the “undeserving poor.” In this way, public education complements the rest of the welfare state as a mechanism for reproducing, as well as mitigating, inequality in America.

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Michael B. Katz is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His conception of the architecture of the American welfare state and the forces driving change within it are elaborated in his book The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State, updated edition (University of Pennsylvania Press).