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The Forum

A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics

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Volume 13, Issue 1


The Segmented Third Rail: The Politics of Social Security from Carter to Obama

Daniel Béland
  • Corresponding author
  • Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, 101 Diefenbaker Place, Saskatoon, SK, Canada, S7N 5B8
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Published Online: 2015-04-10 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/for-2015-0002


Social Security is widely known as “The Third Rail of American Politics” and the program has proved been remarkably stable and politically resilient, over time. While true, this basic story about the institutional stability of Social Security in the US should not hide the segmented, discontinuous nature of its politics over the last four decades. As suggested in this article, the changing nature of Social Security politics is reflected in the variety of the policy options debated, which range from incremental benefit cuts and revenue increases adopted during the Carter and the Reagan years to structural, path-shifting proposals associated with the idea of Social Security privatization, which only became a mainstream policy alternative during the Clinton years. The following analysis explores the debate about these diverse policy alternatives, if and when they entered the federal policy agenda during the periods under consideration.


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About the article

Daniel Béland

Daniel Béland is Professor at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Policy. He has published extensively on the politics of social policy, in the United States and elsewhere around the world: www.danielbeland.org

Corresponding author: Daniel Béland, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, 101 Diefenbaker Place, Saskatoon, SK, Canada, S7N 5B8, e-mail:

Published Online: 2015-04-10

Published in Print: 2015-04-01

Citation Information: The Forum, Volume 13, Issue 1, Pages 19–36, ISSN (Online) 1540-8884, ISSN (Print) 2194-6183, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/for-2015-0002.

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