17.317 | Spring 2006 | Undergraduate

U.S. Social Policy


The research paper is a significant part of the course, counting as 60% towards a student’s final grade. The goal of the paper is to have students use concepts from class to explore policymaking in an issue area of their choosing. The final paper is due 2 days after the last lecture. Students were also given intermediate assignments to complete during the semester to help keep them on track toward that goal. Additionally, the assignments also gave students a sense of the process of conducting a research project over an extended period of time

Assignment 1 (Due: Lec #12)

Select your issue area (turn it in at the beginning of class).

Assignment 2 (Due: Lec #14)

List at least 5 sources that you will use for your project. These can be books, scholarly articles, public opinion polls, government or other kinds of reports, any (legitimate) sources that sheds light on your issue area.

Assignment 3 (Due: Lec #16)

Write a paragraph each on at least two actors (or sets of actors) that is relevant to your issue area. Tell me who they are, what their interest or stake in the issue area is, what kinds of resources they bring to the political arena.

Assignment 4 (Due: 2 days after Lec #19)

Write 8-10 pages exploring public opinion and mass participation (including interest group activity) in your chosen issue area. These pages, revised and expanded upon, will constitute the first one-third to one-half of your final paper, the balance of which will examine the course of policymaking on the topic and look for evidence of participatory influence.

Since policymaking doesn’t occur in a vacuum, in the first section you should report on public opinion surrounding your issue. Those of you with national issues can report the results of national opinion polls like those from Gallup, Roper, Harris, academic sources like the National Election Study or General Social Survey, or from public opinion compilations like those in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly.

In the second section you will explore participation around your issue. You want to get a sense of what forces exist on each side of the issue and how politically “powerful” each side is (“power” is a loaded term in political science, but you know what I mean). If your issue concerns a particular demographic group (say mothers of small children, or African-Americans, or union members etc.), you can look at the participation rate of that group versus others (I can help you get these data from the National Election Study or the Citizen Participation Study dataset that the Verba, Schlozman and Brady article from the Lec #4 reading is based on). If your issue is not national or if those interested are not a specific demographic group and so cannot be identified in survey data (like environmentalist activists - they’re not identifiable in survey data because most surveys with participation data do not include a lot of issue interest questions), then you’ll focus more on interest group activity (of course you can also look at interest group activity when you do have a demographic group to work with). You’ll need to find out what groups are active on each side of the issue, and assess their size, cohesion, organizational strengths, media attractiveness and level of activism in this area. Depending on your issue area, such information can come from secondary sources, newspaper accounts, CQ Weekly Report, the National Journal, and so on.

When you establish which individuals or groups are active around your issue area, try to assess the degree to which they possess the characteristics we’ve talked about in class as facilitating participation and group effectiveness.

For individuals:

  • Levels of Resources, Engagement, Recruitment/Mobilization
  • Intensity of Preferences
  • Cross-cutting Group Memberships or Issue Concerns
  • Ability to Represent Self vs. Reliance on Proxy Representation

For groups:

  • Size, Cohesion, Quality and Nature of Leadership
  • Group Type (Membership or Advocacy/Checkbook Org)
  • Media Attractiveness
  • Intensity of Preferences of Group Members
  • Overlapping Memberships (Is this group the primary group for members, or a secondary affiliation.)
  • Reputation Among Policymakers

Assignment 5: The Final Paper (Due: 1 day after Lec #25)

In the final paper, you’ll combine the 8-10 pages you wrote in April with new analysis of policymaking in your area. How was policy created in your area (or why did it fail to come to fruition)? How do your earlier analysis about the players involved and their relative strengths and weaknesses illuminate the policy outcomes? In short, what happened and why? Which side “won” and why?

Try to analyze your subject using concepts from class:

  • Schattschneider or Downsian Mobilization?
  • Kingdon’s Policy, Politics, Participants; Windows; Coupling
  • Instigators or Policy Entrepreneurs
  • Policy Monopolies
  • Traceability, Visibility
  • Policy Equilibria; Punctuated Equilibria
  • Issue Frames, Images
  • Issue Venues
  • Courts vs. Legislatures as Policymaking Entities
  • Focusing or Trigger Events
  • Valence Issues
  • Hard vs. Easy Issues
  • Attentive and Inattentive Publics
  • Issue Attention Cycle
  • Principle-implementation Gap
  • Inequalities in Participation, Association Membership
  • Organizational Asymmetries
  • Role of Media
  • States as Experimenters
  • Policy Effects on Politics - has Existing Policy Shaped who is Active on your Issue and how Effective they are? Are the Feedback Effects Positive or Negative?
  • And so on, as Applicable to your Subject Area

The finished project should run 20-25 pages (double-spaced, 12-point type). You should revise/expand upon the pages you wrote for Assignment 4 as needed, and combine them with your new analysis of policymaking in your issue area. No formal demarcations of the old and new work is necessary; indeed you might find that logically you proceed chronologically or in some other way that combines the two kinds of info (on players and on policymaking).

Assignments 1-4 will collectively be worth 20% of your course grade. The final paper will be worth 60%, and your section participation and discussion questions will be worth 20%.

Possible issue areas:

  • HMO Patients Bill of Rights (HMOs used to be the answer - what happened?)
  • Prescription Drug Benefits for Seniors (Hugely expensive - but high participation group.)
  • State Children’s Health Insurance Programs (SCHIPs)
  • Long-term Care (Also hugely expensive - but middle class issue.)
  • Child Care/Family and Medical Leave Act (Principle-implementation gap?)
  • California’s Paid Family Leave (How did paid leave come about?)
  • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) (Interesting counter example: benefits for low income people.)
  • Veterans Benefits (Honorable beneficiaries; what happens as WWII generation dies off?)
  • Home Mortgage Interest Deduction (The hidden welfare state.)
  • Employer-provided Health Insurance Deduction
  • IRA’s/ 401(k)’s
  • Taxes: the Marriage Penalty
  • National Health insurance (Who would benefit? Who would pay?)
  • Agricultural Subsidies
  • Federal Student Loans (Middle class issue but students low participation group/issue not on Radar screen?)
  • Unemployment Insurance
  • Job Training
  • Head Start
  • Food Stamps
  • Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program
  • School Lunch Programs
  • Federal Nutrition Guidelines
  • Social Security Disability Insurance
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Public Housing

Other topics are possible - just clear with me first. Whether you choose one of the above or another issue area, I urge you to e-mail me or come to my office hours to discuss your topic; I can help you define it and locate data sources.