Ah, grading season is upon us – thus my lapse in blogging about States of Dependency. (My earlier posts are here, here, and here.) But I’m jumping back in now, lest I lose whatever momentum I still have! My last post was on rights, a topic that I always considered central to my project. This post is about a theme in my work that I've claimed more gingerly, and only in the last few years: federalism.
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Historians who write about American poor relief often have a sense of déjà vu when reading the news. Around this time last year, the Washington Post covered a new Kansas law that bans welfare recipients from using their income support payments to visit swimming pools, see movies, or get tattoos. The mayor of Lewiston, Maine, recently proposed publishing the names and home addresses of everyone in the state who receives public assistance benefits. At a campaign event last fall, presidential hopeful and former governor Jeb Bush responded to a question about how to connect with black voters with a rambling comment about not giving out “free stuff.”
Such stories support a sad refrain in academic writing on poverty policy – a refrain of 'the more things change, the more they stay the same.' And, indeed, there are themes here that demand attention: an enduring impulse to separate the poor into racially coded categories of deserving and undeserving; an insistence that people who receive public support never be better off, or more free, than people who derive their income from paid labor; a suspicion that recipients will take advantage of public generosity unless constantly monitored and disciplined. Little wonder that so many people writing in this area describe an unbroken chain from the Elizabethan Poor Law to today.
I worry, though, that when we focus so much on continuity, we lose sight of change. American poor relief changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth century, in ways that mattered to American governance writ large. One change that I emphasize in States of Dependency is the shift in power from the local level to the state and federal levels, and a corresponding change in the nature of federal-state relationships. In other words, there is a federalism story here that is big and important -- one that might even change how we think about the "New Deal order."
This might strike readers as an odd intervention to make. Federalism hasn’t exactly been a hot topic among historians of the twentieth-century U.S. – as Sara Mayeux and I observed recently in a short co-authored piece. For several generations now, scholars have perceived the federal government’s power as so vast that federalism, as a principle of government organization, seemed hardly worth discussing. Meanwhile, federalism had become so closely associated with anti-civil rights and anti-regulation cries of “states’ rights” that it was difficult for historians to take it seriously.
Without a term like federalism, though, it’s difficult to talk about particular patterns of American governance – ones that matter still today. “Looking across the 20th century,” Sara and I write in that co-authored essay, “there remained central areas of governance—such as education, family law, and criminal justice—where the legal concept of federalism, along with its institutional legacies, helped prevent the federal government from fully occupying the field." We note other policy realms, such as welfare and healthcare, where "federal authorities ultimately created national frameworks, but afforded states important policymaking roles and wide latitude in administration.” Our essay encourages scholars to study “federalism in practice”—attending to “the ways that actors at different levels of government actually exercised their power,” and to “the consequences of those choices for the human experience of governance.”
We cite a number of recently published works, but I'll anchor the point in States of Dependency, since that's what I know best. Here’s an example of what we gain from a “federalism-in-practice” lens: We see that New Deal public assistance programs borrowed a lot from the preexisting patchwork of local relief operations and their place-based logic of belonging (thus scholars’ well-founded invocation of the Elizabethan Poor Law), BUT that these programs also empowered both the federal government and state governments, in lasting ways.
It's especially easy to overlook the state empowerment point today, when our tendency is to see federal-state relationships as a zero-sum game. But consider how these programs worked: In 1935, a complete federal takeover of poor relief was not possible. Wanting nonetheless to unify and modernize the landscape, New Deal reformers in federal policymaking positions incentivized the states to become their partners. The incentives were generous grants of federal money. The reform part came via the conditions that were attached to those grants, and the federal monitoring that followed.
State government did not, of course, transform overnight. Much of my book is about the difficulties of such large-scale structural reform. When we take a longer view, however—into the 1940s and 1950s—we see that federal administrators persisted, and that state welfare agencies did become the capable, modern governmental units that the Social Security Act demanded. Though often headed by political appointees, they were staffed with professionals, including social workers and lawyers. Their structures mirrored those of the federal Social Security Board. They maintained manuals of state-wide rules, and had mechanisms for enforcing those rules at the local level. In this, they epitomized New Deal reform.
These same transformations almost immediately helped undermine other aspects of New Deal reform, calling into question exactly what "the New Deal order" was. As I discuss in the second half of the book, the bureaucratic machinery that federal grants incentivized helped state politicians (and not just in the South) challenge the authority of federal administrators and contest some of the New Deal’s more liberal substantive commitments. I write, for example, about state-led efforts in the 1950s and early 1960s to re-introduce the kind of morals-policing to welfare programs that federal administrators had attempted to eradicate. This history reminds us that the federal government does not enjoy a monopoly over bureaucracy and expertise, nor must these forces always favor the types of causes that facilitated their ascendancy.
To sum up, I realize that for many U.S. historians, the world "federalism" carries negative associations; folks may worry that to study federalism is to give the idea a kind of credibility or legitimacy that it does not deserve. My modest point here is that, regardless of labels, we need to find ways to study intergovernmental power dynamics and analyze how those dynamics affected people on the ground. We need to do so in ways that transcend the boundaries within our discipline, so that our findings don't end up in the silos of education history or welfare history or urban history. I hope that States of Dependency can serve as an example of how we might do that.