In brief, States of Dependency is about fundamental changes in the law and administration of welfare in the twentieth-century U.S., and about what those changes teach us about the modern American state. Or, as the law professor in me would say, it's about how and why Americans became willing to frame almost anything as a right – except the things that are essential for human survival. The New Deal marks the book's opening, and modern welfare rights litigation, the end. In between is a story about how federal administrators wielded the power of the purse in their attempts at reform; how actors at the state and local levels adapted to and contested a new mode of public beneficence; and how people on the ground negotiated this shifting terrain.
But why this topic and not something else? As do so many things in this profession, this book began with the attention and enthusiasm of a mentor. As an undergraduate, I assisted Professor Annelise Orleck (Dartmouth College) as she researched her wonderful book on welfare rights activism in Las Vegas (Storming Caesars Palace). The project introduced me to the complexities of modern American poverty policy and to the equally complex aspirations of economically vulnerable citizens. It also introduced me to one of the most powerful narratives in late-twentieth-century U.S. history and politics: the failure of President Johnson’s “Great Society.” (Orleck has since helped debunk that narrative, in an important co-edited volume on the War on Poverty “at the grassroots.”) I started law school and history graduate school with the thinnest of research agendas, but perceiving a puzzling gap between the hopes and expectations that American government continued to foster and the daily experiences of many poor citizens.
Law school deepened this feeling. During my 1L year, I studied some of the Supreme Court’s famous welfare rights cases – for example, Goldberg v. Kelly (1970), in which Justice Brennan likened welfare benefits to private property and welcomed poor Americans under the Due Process Clause’s protective umbrella, and Shapiro v. Thompson (1969), in which a denunciation of restrictive state welfare laws became the basis for elaborating a constitutional "right to travel." Thirty-five years later, such judicial pronouncements seemed exotic and mysterious. I grew up in the age of Reagan, one of the most ardent purveyors of the “welfare queen” trope. I entered my late teens around the time that President Clinton “ended welfare as we know it.” A big part of what he intended to end, everyone understood, was a system of "entitlement." All this is to say, the idea of welfare recipients as rights holders looked like a historical artifact by the mid-2000s. Once I had some methodological tools under my belt, I started investigating where that idea came from and how, so quickly, it seemed to become laughable, illegitimate, harmful.
After trying to tackle this through conventional legal research methods and much flailing around, I ended up somewhere I never thought I'd be: in the archives of the Social Security Board, one of the flagship agencies of the New Deal. I was following the trail of a government lawyer named A. Delafield Smith, whose philosophical writings on rights and welfare seemed to have influenced better-known poverty law activists and theorists (folks like Ed Sparer and Charles Reich). It turns out that Smith had a long career as a federal welfare bureaucrat – someone who spent his days reviewing state welfare policies for their consistency with federal guidelines and tracking welfare disputes through state agencies and courts. Throughout the late 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, he and his colleagues in the federal agency thought deeply about the rights of the poor and signaled to state and local administrators that they should, too. Such language had not yet made it into the opinions of federal courts, but it was all over administrative correspondence and guidance, as well as the professional conferences where public welfare administrators gathered.
|A scene from the early days of the Social Security Board (credit)|
This disjuncture felt significant to me. The perceived “newness” of welfare rights allowed left-leaning policymakers in the late twentieth century to wash their hands of the idea, treating it as just another instance of the overreach and naiveté of “the Sixties.” Conservative policymakers, meanwhile, could characterize welfare rights as a tool of ill-intentioned outside agitators and selfish moochers – people who had rejected the social contract at the heart of American government. These easy narratives falter, however, if welfare rights claims were instead part of a larger rights-protective architecture, built by government officials over a span of decades.
The book goes beyond crafting a more complex narrative, however. Like many historians, I’m drawn to richness and nuance, but without more, it’s never enough. I now think that I stuck with this project for so long because I hoped that if I got a better handle on the history of welfare rights, I would better understand a disturbing facet of modern American life – something that I struggled to make sense of as a young person and that I will struggle to explain to my own daughter someday: In a country that celebrates equality, fairness, and a robust, rights-oriented concept of citizenship, the official poverty rate is around 15 percent – substantially higher for children and black and Latino Americans. And even if we concede that impoverished Americans are better off than impoverished people elsewhere, we know that deprivation hurts. Poverty is stressful, in ways that impair cognitive functioning. Poverty is correlated with poor health and lower life expectancy. Poverty is a source of shame, even though it is entirely consistent with working steadily and playing by the rules. A life of hard work doesn’t even guarantee the next generation a better future. Economic mobility is highly improbable for many Americans on the bottom rung, especially for those with the misfortune of living in areas segregated by race and income.
I’m not trying to preach here. I’m asking: How is it that so many of us, on both the left and the right, are able to buy into a system that produces these outcomes? I wrote this book to try figure that out. Stay tuned for what I found (although -- spoiler alert -- I think we still have much to learn).
[This is the second in a series of posts about States of Dependency, a history of social welfare law and administration between the New Deal and the modern welfare rights movement. The first post is available here.]