Theda Skocpol

Theda Skocpol is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. Her article in Issue 46 is from a chapter in Civic Engagement in American Democracy from the Brookings Institution.

Recent Articles

Associations Without Members

Civic America has changed. The local forms of participation have faded, and new national advocacy organizations relying on direct mail fundraising have mushroomed. While there are some benefits to the new forms of advocacy, the shift has hurt our shared sense of democratic citizenship.

In just a third of a century, Americans have dramatically changed their style of civic and political association. A civic world once centered in locally rooted and nationally active membership associations is a relic. Today, Americans volunteer for causes and projects, but only rarely as ongoing members. They send checks to service and advocacy groups run by professionals, often funded by foundations or professional fundraisers. Prime-time airways echo with debates among their spokespersons: the National Abortion Rights Action League debates the National Right to Life Committee; the Concord Coalition takes on the American Association of Retired Persons; and the Environmental Defense Fund counters business groups. Entertained or bemused, disengaged viewers watch as polarized advocates debate. The largest membership groups of the 1950s were old-line and well-established, with founding dates ranging from 1733 for the Masons to 1939 for the Woman's Division of Christian Service (a...

Delivering for Young Families: The Resonance of the GI Bill

The problem isn't that old folks get too much money from government -- it's that young families get too little. Recalling the GI Bill and the politics of generational solidarity.

A s Bob Dole's generation eases into retirement, commentators of various stripes complain loudly about generational bias in American social policy. The fiscally conservative Concord Coalition--along with independent presidential contenders Ross Perot and Richard Lamm--complains that working-age taxpayers have to cover the costs of overly generous social programs for America's elderly. The Children's Defense Fund calls upon Americans to "stand for children," marshaling facts and figures to show that the nation invests way too little to help poor children and young families. Antigovernment Republicans arrayed behind Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and John Kasich assert that we must cut way back on federal government spending for the poor and the elderly in order to preserve the American dream for "our children and grandchildren." Each of these proponents of generational equity is speaking to a gaping "missing middle" in U.S. social policy. In recent decades, very little has been done...

Unsolved Mysteries: The Tocqueville Files

I f only folks would turn off the TV and start attending PTA meetings, America's future could be as bright as its civically engaged past. This diagnosis is taking shape in foundation-sponsored gatherings and among highbrow columnists. Privileged men and women--who spend most of their waking hours in their offices, on jet airplanes, and in front of computer screens--are converging on the belief that civic irresponsibility is the fault of average Americans. Today's concern with civic engagement is widely shared, deceptively suggesting a consensus. "We find ourselves at a unique moment in American history," applauds multimillionaire Arianna Huffington writing in the Wall Street Journal , "when thoughtful people all across the political spectrum are coming together to recognize the primacy of civil society to our national health." Americans are "returning to Tocqueville," agrees Michael Barone in a Washington Post commentary that concludes that 1990s "new" Democrats must develop "an...

Race, Liberalism, and Affirmative Action (II)

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Sustainable Social Policy: Fighting Poverty Without Poverty Programs

The history of social policy has a clear lesson. Programs that benefit all citizens do more to reduce poverty than programs targeted to the poor. So a new strategy for gamily security makes more sense than another War on Poverty.

What to do about poverty is, once again, on the public agenda in the United States. A decade ago, social researchers and research-funders, stung by the backlash against the War on Poverty, averted their attention from race-related social ills. Then Charles Murray's rightwing broadside against social programs in Losing Ground (1984) provoked critics to reenter the fray, and William Julius Wilson's The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) revalidated discussion of "the underclass" by progressives. This renewal of controversy is good news for citizens interested in doing more to fight poverty. But there are also reasons to worry Public discussion today, while less optimistic than in the 1960s, is repeating many themes and assumptions of the War on Poverty and Great Society. Policy makers then attributed poverty in part to behavioral problems and cultural deficiencies that they hoped special training and community action programs for the poor could correct. Similarly, the welfare reform consensus...