The American Dole: Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State in the Great Depression

By Jeff Singleton | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
Ending the Dole as We Knew It

Of all the ironies and myths that surround the history of American social policy, perhaps the most intriguing is the current view that the New Deal sought to create an "entitlement" to welfare. Liberal critics of recent changes in federal policy have argued that the 1996 welfare reforms abandon the "safety net" created by the Roosevelt administration in 1935. Conservatives, on the other hand, suggest that the new federal policy ends a failed liberal experiment in social reform, which presumably began during the New Deal era. Both these arguments appear to have in common the assumption that a national welfare program was New Deal policy.

Yet, as we have seen, the central goal of New Deal relief policy in 1935 was not to create a welfare entitlement but to replace the existing national "dole" with public employment and social insurance. 1 The Federal Emergency Relief Administration ( FERA), which was assisting over 5 million unemployed workers and impoverished farmers, was dismantled. A work program was created to provide jobs for all "employables" on the relief rous. Federal grants for small state categorical programs (mainly Old Age Assistance and Aid to Dependent Children) were included in the Social Security Act to help states assist the remaining "residual" relief caseload. 2 These measures, in conjunction with the unemployment compensation and the old age pension program, were portrayed as a dramatic break with relief as it had been administered during the early depression years. The administration's calculations appeared to show that means-tested general relief would be relegated to an insignificant feature of the emerging American "welfare state." With $4.5 billion allocated to the WPA and millions more to finance the Social

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