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The U.S. social policy framework has always relied on private employers to fill in the gaps for workers, rather than the state. U.S. workers have neither a strong social safety net outside of the labor market, nor an extensive social welfare structure supporting the labor market. For the most part, adequate provision of social benefits depends critically on employers’ voluntary adoption of support policies. For example, the U.S. has neither a universal health plan nor a requirement that employers provide health insurance coverage; the U.S. public system of old-age pensions is work-based, and that public system falls short unless supplemented by additional (voluntary) employer contributions. This system largely marginalizes low earners, people of color and immigrant populations, and those unable to work or irregularly attached to the labor market, but also leaves much of the middle class vulnerable to cut-backs by their employers.

This model is failing. Over the past generation, employers have increasingly pushed the burden of economic risks associated with illness, unemployment, or old age onto individuals and the state has not stepped in to cover those risks, exacerbating social exclusion. This trend has been offset by only a handful of countervailing factors, which been insufficient to change the overall course. While employers have maintained generous benefit packages for a privileged few, they have reduced employment benefits for most. Because of the centrality of employer-provided benefits and the absence or limited presence of broader government provision, this has significantly weakened economic security for most.

This paper will start by discussing at some length the U.S. system of work-based social supports, how it has changed, and the consequences for workers. In the following section we briefly analyze the political and economic forces that have driven these changes, as well as counterforces that can help to build a better system of supports. We close with brief reflections on promising policy directions.


Center for Social Policy Working Paper #2009-5.

This article is based in part on Heather Boushey and Chris Tilly, “Avere un lavoro: i limiti del sistema di sostegno sociale contributivo negli Stati Uniti” (“Get a job: The limits of work-based social support in the United States”, Annali della Fondazione di Vittorio (Rome), special issue on “New poverty, new priorities: Rethinking social inclusion,” February 2008 (published in Italian). We would like to thank Fabián Slonimczyk for research assistance. The views expressed in this paper are those of the researchers and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ford Foundation.



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