Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On Rights (Tani, States of Dependency, Post 3)

For all you junior scholars out there, hard at work on your first books, here’s a tip: apply for grant money for a book manuscript workshop. You may feel awkward organizing something like this, but if done right, it’s fun and stimulating for all the participants, and it really does improve the work.

Among the wonderful conversations that emerged from my manuscript workshop was one about balancing storytelling and argument.* Mine is a voice that tilts toward narrative, and probably for good reason: present company excluded [Dan], the legal-interpretive maneuvers of government bureaucrats are not exactly scintillating to most readers. States of Dependency uses human stories to describe and explain change over time in the law and administration of public income support.
But I have always seen narrative as consistent with strong argumentation, and after the workshop, I pushed myself to be even more transparent about my major claims. One of my central arguments is about rights and their role in modern American governance. It is an argument that tries to make sense of both the familiar-looking welfare rights claims of the late 1960s, heard in the streets and in federal court, and the less familiar rights language that I found from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s: federal welfare administrators using rights language in internal memoranda and communiqués to their state counterparts; poor Americans referencing rights in individual disputes with state and local welfare authorities; and critics of New Deal welfare programs insisting, again and again, that welfare should not be discussed in such terms. Framing the entire inquiry is today’s clear aversion to rights-based poverty policies, in the face of continued reverence for triumphalist, rights-vindicating narratives. How did all these pieces fit together? 

In brief, States of Dependency urges readers to view rights language as more than an American tradition; more, too, than a mode of demanding resources and redress. Building on my 2012 article on this topic, the book characterizes rights language as part of an emergent pattern of governance – a pattern characterized by direct, individualized links between citizens and centralized government and a weakened sense of local, communal belonging. Yes, people used rights language to make claims on government, but reform-minded government officials used rights language, too, in instrumental ways. When it comes to welfare rights, these practices were inextricably linked.

To be clear, I am not the first scholar to characterize rights as central to the modern American state, nor am I the first to describe rights in functional terms. As James Sparrow (University of Chicago) has so beautifully argued in Warfare State, the giving of new rights helped legitimize the modern American state in the eyes of a skeptical public. My contribution is to suggest that even when rights language failed to deliver material benefits (as in the New Deal welfare context) it helped delegitimize an older, competing regime of governance. It did so by encouraging state and federal actors to see themselves as the givers and vindicators of rights, to perceive local officials as potential rights violators, and to develop corresponding legal and bureaucratic machinery. The implication was that individual citizens should no longer look to their local communities for subsistence and protection, but to a “higher” level of government. Phrased differently, government-issued rights language was part and parcel of the decline of variegated local citizenship(s) and the attempted substitution of a more uniform, national concept of belonging.**
The word “attempted” is deliberate, as is my failure to specify the content of this “national concept of belonging.” That is because the actors that I write about never wholly agreed. For example, among federal welfare administrators, rights meant something different to those with social work training than to those trained in law, even though both disliked the anti-rights paradigm that they associated with traditional local poor relief. Similarly, there was sometimes a gulf between the rights that appeared in administrative guidance documents and the rights that poor individuals articulated in administrative spaces. In short, government actors may have used rights language instrumentally, but that does not mean they controlled it. More on that to come.
 [This is the third 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 here, the second, here.]

*If you’re interested in thinking more about the value and limitations of narrative history, I recommend this roundtable, over at The Junto, and this Perspectives essay by Gordon Wood.
**For another take on take on the importance of rights to "state-building" in this period, see “The Administrative Origins of Modern Civil Liberties,” by Jeremy Kessler (Columbia University).