Seen and Heard: Lane Kenworthy on Social Democracy in America

Daniella Dávila Aquije

Social policy and programs are often the cause of heated debate. Some argue that the financial situation of a political jurisdiction cannot possibly sustain “big government,” while others do not view economic competitiveness as an acceptable reason to cut funding to social programs. On Monday September 17, The School of Public Policy and Governance was fortunate enough to have a Lane Kenworthy contribute to this policy debate and share his careful empirical research on social democracy in America.

Lane Kenworthy is a professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Arizona and specializes on the study of social programs and the growth and constraints of the welfare state in the United States. His recent books include Progress for the Poor (2011), Jobs with Equality (2088) and Egalitarian Capitalism (2004). He is an active blogger and his site, Consider the Evidence, is an important resource for anyone with an interest in economic equality, mobility and social policy.

Kenworthy spoke specifically about social democratic trends in the United States. He predicts that even though government expenditure as a percentage of GDP in the United States compared to other industrial economies is low, in the medium to long run we can expect government spending to rise, possibly even to levels comparable to social democratic countries like Sweden or Denmark. There is empirical evidence that social programs can help the US overcome its deficiencies in economic security and living standards, and Kenworthy argues that as policy makers try to solve these problems the policies they implement will, for the most part, remain.

While the American bureaucracy and political structure is not conducive to the adoption and implementation of social policy (especially with the current partisan divisions), Kenworthy argues that once social programs are created, they almost never disappear. This is in part because policies that are passed are popular with the public—the exception being welfare—and at least as importantly because the US system is riddled with veto points meaning it is hard to get rid of a policy once it is in place. Most social programs implemented in the US in the last 30 years, for instance, still exist, and funding to several of those programs has even been expanded. Kenworthy thus argues that in the next 50 years, the United States could be comparable to Denmark in terms of social spending. However, he suggests that instead of looking at government expenditure as a percentage of GDP, the best way to measure the effectiveness of the American social democracy is by looking at the structure of government and the increasingly active role that it will play in ensuring against risk, expanding equality of opportunity, and sharing prosperity.

Obstacles to Kenworthy’s predictions of a more social democratic America include: public animosity to “big government”, the rhetoric of reaction to social programs, the Democratic Party losing political power and the balance of power shifting toward the Right, the structure of the US political system impeding progressive policy change, and unaffordable costs. However, Kenworthy is skeptical that these obstacles will be sufficient barriers to implementing and maintaining more social democratic policies in the future.

Kenworthy is a very engaging speaker and it was encouraging to see someone hopeful about the future of social democracy, especially when public opinion and the media often paint a bleak future. While he spoke largely about the US, Kenworthy’s research contributes to how we understand social policy in Canada as well.

Daniella Dávila Aquije is a 2014 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. She also holds a BAH in Political Studies and History from Queen’s University. 

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