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can social science shape
the public agenda?

feature article harold l. wilensky

Although America leads the world in conducting social scientific evaluations of public policies, in the end, social science
contributes less to policymaking here than it does in most of Western Europe and Japan. Instead, our research has little bear-
ing on whether a government program lives or dies. Intellectuals typically have tense relationships with men and women
of power, but the disconnect between research and policy is most extreme in the United States.

Drawing on interviews with more than 400 politicians,
budget officers, health and welfare officials, and labor and
management people in 19 rich democracies, as well as
decades of related research, I reach two conclusions about
the interplay of knowledge and public policy. First, whether
and how research influences policy depends on the political
and economic context in which it is financed and used.
Fragmented and decentralized political economies, such as
that of the United States, foster isolated, single-issue
research, typically focused on short-run effects and used as
rhetorical weapons rather than policy planning input. In con-
trast, more centralized, “corporatist” systems, such as those
of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Austria, and, partially, Germany,
provide channels for more consistent expert and intellectual
influence. If staff experts are at the table where at least mod-
erately centralized governments bargain with broad-based
labor federations, employer and trade associations, profes-
sional associations,
political parties, and
churches, they will
have a more serious,
sustained input to
the policy process. If
academic intellectu-
als also have a steady
relationship with
political elites, their
knowledge will be
used more often. In
short, these central-
ized, coordinated
groups serve as con-
s e n s u s – m a k i n g
machines, fostering

dialogue among researchers, bureaucrats, and politicians that
connects a wider range of issues, considers longer-range
effects, and more often uses research findings to plan and
implement policy.

Second, good basic research deals with recurrent problems
of the human condition and is therefore, in the broadest
sense, public-policy research. Even in America’s adversarial
political environment, social science makes its way into the
policy arena in the long run.

To illustrate these two themes, I concentrate on four issues
where social science has improved our knowledge: job training
and creation, health care, economic policy, and crime control.

job training and cost-benefit analysis

The case of job training and cost-benefit analysis illustrates
a sad truth: the more evaluation, the less program develop-
ment; the more demonstration projects, the less follow-

through. In no other policy area
in the United States has the
demand for rigorous evalua-
tion research loomed so
large, and nowhere among
the rich democracies has
such research been so politi-
cized. Three problems are
apparent: the research itself
is usually quite narrow, polit-
ically naive, and often seri-
ously flawed; research
focused on a single program
obscures how programs
affect one another; and eval-
uated success has little to do
with future funding.
























A typically narrow measure of the efficiency of job training
is the earnings of the graduates, which ignores the interde-
pendence of policies. Improved education and training may be
ineffective in increasing earning capacity unless steps are also
taken to change the number and mix of available jobs, and
efforts to change available jobs may fail if low-wage workers
lack training and education. Either initiative taken alone might
fail, whereas both together might succeed.

One of the most careful and comprehensive cost-benefit
analyses ever done on a social program, based on research by
Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, was published in the

early 1980s. It illustrates how to conduct an independent, sys-
tematic evaluation that avoids the narrow, single-issue disease.
It focused on the Job Corps and shows that solid proof of pro-
gram effectiveness often has no impact on policy or program
funding. The Job Corps provides a range of services to disad-
vantaged youth—vocational-skills training, basic education, and
health care—typically in residential centers. In fiscal 1990–91, it
served 62,000 young people: a majority black, eight in ten high
school dropouts, and four in ten from families on public assis-
tance. It is the most expensive federally run job training pro-
gram. Baseline and follow-up data were gathered for about
5,100 youths over two years (including a matched comparison
group who were never enrolled). The average training period
was 5.9 months. The researchers showed estimated total annu-
al costs to society (including Corps members) of $5,070 in 1977
dollars and the total benefits to society of $7,343—or a net gain
to society of $2,273 per Corps member.

If we concentrate only on the increased output and earn-
ings, as is typically done, we would miss almost half the soci-
etal benefits shown for the Job Corps. For instance, the net
social value of reductions in arrests—reductions in costs to the
criminal justice system, in personal injury and property dam-
age, and in the value of stolen property—amounted to about
$2,000 per Corps member during the observation period.
Apparently, while many matched non-Corps youth were vig-
orously engaged in robbery, burglary, theft, barroom brawls,
mugging old men in back alleys, peddling drugs, and an occa-
sional murder—all the while collecting an average of $1,357
more from AFDC, General Assistance, Medicaid, Food Stamps,
Unemployment Insurance, and Workers Compensation than
Job Corps members collected—the Corps members were off
the street during training and often worked in conventional
jobs afterward. Some minor savings came from reduced drug
and alcohol use, but the big savings were in the reduced crim-
inal activity accompanying their participation.

None of this more broadly applied research inspired
expanded funding. President Reagan proposed to wipe out
the Job Corps. President Bush I’s last budget proposal cut the
Job Corps slightly. It has not fared well under Bush II.

Many social programs and labor-market policies in the
United States are funded for such short periods and at such
meager levels that the fuss about their alleged failure to solve
some huge problem is absurd. Some of these programs were
hardly launched before they were shot down in a cloud of com-
plaints about great costs and limited benefits, often reinforced
by short-term, single-issue evaluation research. In the rare case
where evaluations found evidence of some modest success, the

42 contexts spring 2005

Some of these programs were hardly launched

before they were shot down in a cloud of com-

plaints about great costs and limited benefits,

often reinforced by short-term, single-issue

evaluation research.






Future Employee: Edison, NJ, Job Corps Academy

spring 2005 contexts 43

results were often pronounced as benedictions at the grave-
side. Political success may have been inversely related to eval-
uated success. In the absence of effective coalitions of
politicians, bureaucrats, and experts and a system for aggre-
gating interests, achieving consensus, and integrating social
and economic planning, each interest group can interpret
research results according to its preconceptions, with no
accommodation to opposing preconceptions. The voice of
research, even scholarly analysis, is drowned out by the noise.

commercial health care:
an american peculiarity

The radical disjunction between knowledge and policy is evi-
dent in the issue of health care reform, where social science has
improved our grasp of the issues. Here is what comparative
research tells us: the United States is unique among rich democ-
racies in its lack of national health insurance, high ratio of pri-
vate to public expenditures, almost complete commercialization
of health care delivery through a medical/industrial complex,
chaotic and intrusive private and public regulation, extraordi-
nary administrative costs, and inequality of access. It ranks high-
est in total cost yet scores below average in health performance.
In contrast, all other affluent democracies have universal and
comprehensive coverage for medical care based on the princi-
ples of social right and shared risk, global budgets within which
regions and localities must operate, a dominant public share of
spending, and compulsory financing from individual and
employer contributions and/or government revenues.

In the absence of these common features of national
health care, when the United States attempts incremental
health care reforms, two results are inevitable—cost shifting
and risk-selection. If you try to control the costs of services pro-
vided by vendors who serve Medicare and Medicaid patients
or the privately controlled plans, the dominant actors—
employers, HMOs, hospital chains, insurance companies—will
shift costs to the public sector by restricting coverage and
charging patients more. Commercial providers also save
money by risk-selection, skimming off the younger, healthier
patients and dumping older, sicker, costlier patients onto the
public sector.

The latest attempt at large-scale reform was the complex
Clinton health care proposal of 1993–94. The level of the
debate was set more by the infamous television ads starring

Harry and Louise than by careful research on the costs and ben-
efits of various systems of health care finance, organization, and
delivery. During the year-long debate on health care reform, the
disjunction between knowledge and policy was matched by the
disjunction between political rhetoric in Washington and pub-
lic opinion. Despite the sharply partisan climate of 1993–94 and
fear-mongering slogans by the small-business lobby and insur-
ance companies, issue-specific opinion remained friendly to the
outlines of national health insurance. Cross-sections of
Americans polled about issues remained enthusiastic about uni-
versal and government-guaranteed coverage via an employer
mandate, portability of all medical insurance, and prohibition
against insurance companies’ refusal to cover preexisting con-
ditions—in short, the content of the administration bill. But

when asked whether they supported the “Clinton health care
proposal,” the same people gave their TV-driven negative
response. Few, of course, knew what the proposal contained.
The media—especially television but also the prestige press—
concentrated on shouting politicians in 20-second sound bites,
the style and content of the advertising war, and the details of
the political process, accenting extremes. Despite this cloud of
confusion and hysteria, a majority showed support for the spe-
cific ingredients of reform.

Some argue that the Clintons’ failure was due to their polit-
ical ineptitude. This overlooks the history of similar efforts that
failed in more favorable political climates. Presidents who tried
to move toward national health insurance include Teddy
Roosevelt, FDR (who judged he could not get Congress to add
it to Social Security), Truman, and Kennedy. Today the barriers
include the great size and influence of the insurance industry
(1,500 insurance companies dominate the medical-industrial
complex and their lobbyists spent almost $50 million to defeat
the Clinton plan); the declining influence of broad-based

Some argue that the Clintons’ failure was due

to their political ineptitude. This overlooks

the history of similar efforts that failed in

more favorable political climates.

“Sometimes I wonder whether the
world is being run by smart people
who are putting us on or by imbeciles
who really mean it.”
—Mark Twain

contexts spring 200544

political parties in the electorate and the erosion of labor unions
and established churches, which leaves a power vacuum
increasingly filled by the broadcast media interacting with nar-
row, sectarian, political and religious interest groups and equal-
ly specialized business groups; the increasing polarization of
American politics; Senate rules that permit minorities to block
legislation; and, finally, unrepresentative electoral rules that are
also hostile to third-party formation (majoritarian, first-past-

the-post, winner-take-all). The lesson: a major electoral shift
must take place if the United States is to join the other
advanced democracies in this policy area.

reaganomics versus economics

The role of experts and intellectuals in shaping policy in the
United States is severely limited or transformed into that of pro-
pagandists, as at such right-wing think tanks as the Cato Institute,
Heritage Foundation, and their few left-wing counterparts (such
as the Institute for Policy Studies). Of course, independent aca-
demic researchers do not always agree on the policy implications
of their work. For instance, a small minority of academic econo-
mists embraced Reaganomics; they defended large tax cuts under
Reagan and Bush II as a way to spur capital investment and
growth and thereby reduce deficits. Herbert Stein, former chair-
man of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon
and Ford, calls it “punk supplysideism”—extreme to the point of
being bizarre. Yet because of the erratic relationship of experts
and intellectuals to policy in the United States, this doctrine
became public policy overnight under Reagan, swiftly replacing
serious literature on both monetarism and supply-side econom-
ics. It became the object of some derision during the Bush I and
Clinton administrations but has since been revived in its purest
form under Bush II. The consensus of scholarly researchers on the
effects of the level of taxes on economic performance, in fact,
ranges between the view that it has a minor positive to a minor
negative effect. And these effects depend on types of tax cuts,
stage of the business cycle, and so on.

We can view economics as an extreme case for under-
standing both the great distance between social science and
policy (as in the rise of Reaganomics) and as an example of the

occasional strong influence social science research can have
when its perspectives fit the preconceptions of political lead-
ers (as in the recent health care debate and this year’s Social
Security debate). Economics is more influential and more nar-
rowly specialized than other social science disciplines. It is the
only social science institutionalized in the White House (the
Council of Economic Advisers), and it can claim higher levels
of consensus about theory and method than the other social
sciences. This is why health economists have, for better or
worse, dominated the intellectual component of health care
reform. Because of their inherent bias toward market solutions
and their insulation from social research on the organization,
financing, and the performance of health care delivery systems
in other countries, one group of American health economists
has made exaggerated claims regarding the benefits of “med-
ical savings accounts” (or other forms of privatization) remi-
niscent of the claims of the supply-side ideologues of the
1980s and 1990s. If this advocacy “research” shapes health
care reform, the likely outcome will be a two-tier system, fur-
ther cost shifting on a grand scale, and a further polarization
of American politics without the benefits of either cost control
or equality of access for the majority of Americans.

crime prevention and sociological knowledge

The message so far: Where there is a consensus in main-
stream social science, it is often overcome by forensic
“research,” and the disciplines in the large, specialized
American academy differ in perspective and impact. But even
where sociology and political science provide a consensus of
the competent on major issues of public policy, the record is
not encouraging. The issue of crime prevention and control
provides an example.

Extensive contributions to the understanding of changing
rates of crime over time and location have had virtually no
effect on American policy in the past 30 years. In fact, the
record suggests that the better the research, the smaller the
audience. From my recent review of American data on violent
crime and from cross-national studies, I infer a broad scholar-
ly consensus about the roots of violent crime: across time and
geographical areas and under modern conditions, the combi-
nation of poverty, inequality, and family breakup in the con-
text of crowded urban living powerfully and consistently
explains homicide rates, which are correlated with less reliable
data on other violent crimes.

The decline of violent crime between 1993 and 1999
reflects a brief decline in poverty, unemployment, and inequal-
ity, the beginning of family policies that cushion the shock of
family breakup, and the decline in the proportion of 15–24-
year-olds. Reverse all these sufficiently, and the rates will climb

Extensive contributions to the understanding

of changing rates of crime over time and loca-

tion have had virtually no effect on American

policy in the past 30 years.

spring 2005 contexts 45

again. Further, the crackdowns on crime—the prison boom
starting in the early 1970s, the repeated declarations of war
on drugs and crime from Nixon through Bush I and II, tough
talk and tough laws—have given us the highest known incar-
ceration rate in the world, an increasing share of government
budgets going to courts and prisons, and a poisonous politics,
Willie Horton style. But the crackdowns do not deter crime.

Scholars of very different ideological persuasion—dovish like
Elliott Currie and hawkish like James Q. Wilson—range
between the view that increasing the severity, frequency, and
certainty of punishment to deter crime is only marginally effec-
tive and the view that it is counterproductive. Even increasing
the number of law enforcement personnel and increasing
police efficiency has only a small effect on the crime rate,
unless vast resources are put into community policing. Even
then, the results are modest, and they are infinitesimal where
there is no “community.” As in the case of poverty research
and supplysideism, the scholarly consensus regarding crime
prevention is segregated from the action.

In sum, policy segmentation is extreme in the United
States, and the disjunction between social science and social
policy is equally extreme. At the other end of the spectrum are
democracies—often dubbed “corporatist”—that are more
centralized, with more consensual politics and tighter inte-
gration of knowledge and policy. These include Japan as well
as smaller European democracies such as Norway, Sweden,

Finland, Austria, and, to a lesser extent, Belgium and the
Netherlands (with Germany a middle case between the
extremes). In these countries either American-style evaluation
research is not done at all, or, if done, it is more closely tied to
policy deliberations and is used not to kill off political enemies
but to foster consensus and implement policy. In other words,
national differences in structures for bargaining shape the
intellectual channels for influence. It is not the modest supply
of social science knowledge that blocks its influence in the
United States, although it is modest; it is not the limited sup-
ply of experts and intellectuals; it is not even the limitations of
applied social research (American research has been more rig-
orous than others); it is instead the location of our experts and
intellectuals. If they were located in an interacting array of cen-
tralized labor federations, centralized employer federations,
strong political parties, and at least moderately centralized
governments with the capacity to implement policy, American
social scientists would have as much influence as their coun-
terparts abroad.

basic social science shapes policy
in the long run

Despite its limitations, social science does make its way
into the public agenda in the long run, even where social and
political structures are unfavorable to the easy interplay of
politicians, bureaucrats, and intellectuals. For good basic
research is policy-oriented in the broad sense that it deals with
persistent problems of the human condition—hierarchy and
equality, consensus and conflict, security and efficiency, par-
ticipation and political legitimacy, and the causes and conse-
quences of the wealth of nations. It also addresses recurrent
problems of modern society: the breakdown and regeneration
of community and democracy, social rights, and individual lib-
erties. Social science aims to develop knowledge of these uni-
versal problems and dilemmas as well as their resolution.

That our knowledge of these issues makes its way in the
long run is evident from the intellectual history of the past cen-
tury or so. Consider these examples drawn from sociology and
economics: The labor economists and labor historians of the
“Wisconsin School” in the first third of the 20th century
mightily shaped American social security laws and the NLRA
(the Wagner Act and related labor legislation). Again, the ideas
emerged long before they were embodied in legislation. For
instance, the early impetus for the Social Security Act of 1935
came from economists, political scientists, and others who
were the original founders and leaders of the American
Association for Labor Legislation (AALL), established in 1906
as a section of the International Association for Labor

Only when the political climate is ripe can

solid knowledge play out in policy.


















Social Security becomes law.

contexts spring 200546

Legislation. Among the most active scholars who were in or
around this association and who shaped the public agenda of
the 1930s were John R. Commons, institutional economist of
Wisconsin, who advised Senator LaFollette on progressive
social legislation before World War I, and his many students in
both labor economics and industrial relations.

During the three decades before the New Deal, these
scholarly advocates did research on collective bargaining,
labor law, industrial regulation, income maintenance, work-
er’s compensation, unemployment insurance, and health
insurance. They crafted laws, some of which were debated in
the legislatures of Wisconsin, Ohio, and New York; later they
directly shaped New Deal social legislation. The persistent
influence of these intellectuals on social legislation of the
1930s is symbolized by Wilbur Cohen’s appointment as
Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Johnson
administration 30 years later. He got his PhD in 1934 at
Wisconsin, where he was fully exposed to the lively academ-
ic debates about labor and social legislation.

Morris Janowitz’s work in the early 1960s on the military
and the related work of Charles Moskos in the late 1980s had
considerable influence in the reorganization of the military.
Moskos’s (and Janowitz’s) ideas of a national youth service
corps have directly shaped political debates—with Senator
Nunn and Governor, then President, Clinton and, later, pres-
idential candidate John Kerry embracing the idea—again
after a 30-year time lag from sociological analysis to nation-
al policy debate.

Similarly, it is likely that when political and economic con-
ditions are favorable for the adoption of national health insur-
ance, many a Congressional staffer and White House domestic
adviser will dig out old memos and position papers based not
only on the work of medical economists but also on research
in the sociology of medicine and on comparative studies of the
organization and delivery of medical services.

What I infer from this tour through examples of the public
policy impact of social science is that the work of political sci-
entists and sociologists raises the consciousness of policy-
makers in two ways:
• It helps to specify what areas are most open to choice and

maneuver, and what forces cannot be reversed by public
policy, such as the aging of the population, the decline of
fertility, and the emergence of gender equality.

• It brings to view new policy options and a wider range
of possibilities. Consider health insurance: Although
mass and elite opinion have been in favor of national
health insurance since at least the Truman administra-
tion, never before have so many Americans understood
the broad options that other modern democracies have
adopted. Many folks in the congressional and executive
branches have learned something about European and
Canadian systems of finance and delivery—again
knowledge rooted in long-term study by sociologists,
political scientists, economists, and public policy ana-
lysts. In other words, social science serves the function
of rational enlightenment.

Wilbur Cohen becomes Secretary of HEW, 1968.















spring 2005 contexts 47

Similarly, comparative studies show that while all modern
democracies confront similar problems of structural unemploy-
ment and family breakup, some of them have developed effec-
tive policies to reduce the negative effects. Of all the successful
policy clusters that we find abroad, active labor-market policy
(training and retraining, job creation, placement and job coun-
seling, mobility incentives) and family policy (childcare, parental
leave, flexible retirement, family allowances) are the two that gen-
erate the broadest supporting coalitions and are therefore likely
candidates for the American public agenda. The first increases
productivity; the second reduces family poverty. That national
health insurance has been successful in achieving a reasonable
balance between equity and universal coverage, cost control,
innovation, and quality in rich democracies as diverse in culture
and politics as Britain, Canada, Germany, Belgium, Norway, and
Sweden casts doubt on the idea that “American individualism”
makes national health insurance impossible for the United States.

The second conclusion about the long-run impact of social
science is that, on occasion, the weight of social science evi-
dence shapes a specific policy direction. This occurs when a
political leader with a preference for a particular direction comes
to power, is able to build coalitions to support it, and hires advis-
ers already in touch with the relevant ideas through social and
political networks that reach into university campuses.

Many students of American politics suggest that the
United States is paralyzed in dealing effectively with its major
problems. They often list their favorite policies and call it paral-
ysis when these are not enacted. A more precise definition is
needed. Clearly where (1) both the masses and most elites
favor a set of policies, (2) other countries have enacted it suc-
cessfully, and (3) there is no action in the United States for as
long as 25–50 years, we can call it paralysis. Examples include
national health insurance, effective gun control, family policy,
serious investment in raising standards for grades K-12, and
policies to increase party and candidate access to the broad-
cast media in election campaigns.

It takes critical elections to create the opportunity for major
reforms that reflect widely shared goals: FDR ranged between
a two-to-one and a four-to-one margin in the U. S. Senate

when he signed New Deal legislation; Lyndon Johnson had a
two-to-one margin when he launched Medicare. Today it may
not take that much to overcome paralysis, but it will likely
require substantial Democratic control of Congress and a pres-
ident of the same party and/or a resurgence of Republican
“moderates” in rebellion against radical right dominance.
Until then, we can expect tiny steps and a reluctant, unsteady
funding of popular social and labor-market reforms that might
serve the public interest. Only when the political climate is ripe
can solid knowledge play out in policy.

Harold L. Wilensky is professor emeritus of political science at the

University of California, Berkeley, and the author of 13 books.

recommended resources

Henry J. Aaron. Politics and the Professors (Brookings Institution,

1978). An economist insider describes the uses and misuses of social

research in Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Arnold J. Heidenheimer, Hugh Heclo, and Carolyn Teich Adams.

Comparative Public Policy, 3rd ed. (St. Martin’s Press, 1990). How and

why democracies differ in the specific policies they choose. Covers

America, Europe, and Japan.

Haynes Johnson and David Broder. The System: The American Way of

Politics at the Breaking Point (Little, Brown, 1996). A play-by-play

account of contending forces in the battle over the Clinton health care

proposal by two old-fashioned investigative reporters.

David Mechanic and David A. Rochefort. “Comparative Medical

Systems.” Annual Review of Sociology 22 (1996): 239-270. Shows

why cost shifting, risk selection, interference in the clinical

doctor/patient relation, rationing by income, and escalating costs are

rooted in the peculiar U.S. (non)system of health care delivery.

Harold L. Wilensky. Rich Democracies: Political Economy, Public Policy,

and Performance (University of California Press, 2002). Offers sys-

tematic analysis and evidence supporting the assertions in this article,

by specifying similarities and differences among 19 countries in their

taxing, spending, and public policies, and how these shape the well-

being of their people.


Ford’s most fuel-efficient 2003
car can go, tops, 36 miles on a
gallon of gas. Its 1912 Model T
could go 35 miles.

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