January 13th, 2020

Theater of Masks

PROPONENT EXCHANGE

Policy feedback loops and US old-age policy

Researchers of policy history have long deliberated over explanatory frameworks: institutionalist accounts tend to focus on inherited conditions and path dependency in political development, while others stress the importance of social movements in shaping policy. Among the more dynamic analytical frameworks for the study of welfare politics is that of "policy feedbacks," which looks at the evolution of policy as an iterative process in which new policies change the conditions for further political engagement.

In a 2019 article, EDWIN AMENTA and THOMAS ALAN ELLIOTT look at the utility of these frameworks for explaining the character of old-age pensions in the US from the mid-1930s to 1950s.

From the article:

"In 1935, Congress created Old Age Assistance (OAA), a federal-state matching program which immediately provided benefits to the elderly. All states adopted old-age assistance legislation by 1937, and many states passed generous pensions. These reforms occurred in the context of extensive activity by the old-age pension movement, which called for $200 monthly pensions to almost all nonemployed citizens over 60 years. This proposal was rejected, and the Social Security Act was enacted in August 1935. For the formative years of U.S. social policy, the elderly had to rely almost entirely on old age assistance programs, and these varied dramatically in generosity from state to state. We seek to explain why some states became generous and why some of them remained so during the formative years of U.S. old-age policy.

The results provide some support for each of the models. Initial generosity was prompted in some states by way of insider institutional political processes. In others, the politically mediated influence of a social movement, including mediation through favorable public opinion, brought about generous pensions. In the second period, initial generosity was a key determinant of later generosity, but it also required group mobilization, as expected by the positive policy feedback model. Yet there was still a route for states that were not generous to become so, one that worked through the politically mediated effects of a social movement. This is good news for U.S. proponents of policy reform. Political institutional obstacles to democracy, including an underdemocratized polity and patronage-based parties, stood as major hindrances to progressive old-age policy in its formative years. These obstacles were reduced by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and various reforms of political parties and nomination systems that work mainly through primaries."

Link to the paper.

  • "Drawing on the example of conservative cross-state advocacy against public sector unions, I describe the strategy of policy feedback as political weapon. I document that the passage of conservative network-backed legislation led to large and enduring declines in public sector union density and revenue. I further show that by curbing the power of public unions, the passage of conservative network-backed bills dampened the political participation of public sector employees." Alexander Hertel-Fernandez on "Policy Feedback as Political Weapon." Link. (See also our recommended readings post from Hertel-Fernandez, and a related newsletter on RTW and policy feedbacks from back in 2018.)
  • A 2003 book by Andrea Louise Campbell considers how the passage of Social Security galvanized political participation among low-income seniors. Link. And, from 2014, Amy Lerman and Vesla Weaver examine how the criminal justice system does just the opposite for the formerly incarcerated. Link.
  • "I suggest that laws and administrative rules operate on voluntary organizations to structure the resources, capacities, strategies, and ideals of individuals." Kristin Goss develops a multi-level theory of feedback loops. Link.
 Full Article