The American Welfare State

Course Objective

Policy Development covers how public problems are framed and debated, and how policy solutions are legitimated and implemented in the U.S. political system. The scope of this section is social welfare policy.

Students successfully completing this section can expect to (1) gain a broad overview of the history, programs, ideologies, and politics of the American welfare state; (2) develop in-depth knowledge of a specific social welfare issue; and (3) gain perspectives about advocacy coalition formation, legislative tracking, rule-making, and policy communication in the form of policy memos, briefs, and public speaking.

Structure of Content

The content of this course is organized into three segments:

The first segment (6 sessions) covers institutions, interests, and ideologies in the politics of the U.S. welfare state. Materials will be organized chronologically. Class members will learn the big picture history of U.S. social policy as well as the evolution of U.S. policymaking mechanisms, administrative capacity, and political competitions.
In the second segment (6 sessions), the instructor will lead discussions on the politics and process of specific policy areas such as social insurance, public assistance, labor market intervention, affordable housing, and community development. For each area, there will be equal attention on program operations and on the underlying political dynamics and idea evolution. Class members will learn: an overview of programs in each area, the operational mechanics of one or two specific programs in that area, and the political dynamics behind current debates and future reform.
The third segment (3 sessions) consists of teaching sessions by class members on specific programs. Class members should explore with the instructor potential research topics before the spring semester so as to start preliminary reading during winter break. Project decisions should be finalized by the third week of the semester.

Learning Experiences

Each class member is responsible for a semester research project throughout the entire semester. While independent reading is central to this research process, there are six exercises, one every two weeks beginning in February, to help structure the research process as well. These exercises include: documenting the history and politics of a program area, analyzing legislative strategies, doing participant observation in a formal meeting, analyzing regulatory rules, writing a policy paper, and teaching the class on a program. Most of these exercises are meant to be cumulative elements of the semester research project. Depending on class size, the semester research project, along with some of these exercises, may be team-based.

Preparation during Winter Break

Course Canvas site will be available by mid-November, along with a tentative draft of the syllabus. The syllabus is subject to amendment and approval by class members in early January. Students who miss the Access Period 1 registration deadline but who decides during winter break to take this course should send an email to as soon as that decision is made, to avoid missing important preparatory materials for this class.

One book to serve as course background will be assigned for winter break. The book will be announced on Canvas in mid-November.

Course Expectation

Daily newspaper reading and weekly review of analytic news magazines are required of all class members in this course. Aside from that, there is no formal prerequisite, although basic familiarity with and intellectual curiosity in American social history is recommended. Abstention from note-taking in class is proposed by instructor and subject to approval by class members at the first meeting of the semester.

Class members are expected to take initiative in their own semester research process. That includes careful research and independent reading from early on in the semester.