The American Welfare System: Origins, Structure, and Effects

By Howard Gensler | Go to book overview
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nation for this dramatic shift must lie in the fact that Congress broadened social insurance programs to include dependent children who might otherwise be supported on public assistance. (This also meant that state-level AFDC programs would be left with the least publicly acceptable welfare recipients: unwed or deserted mothers.)

This, of course, is not to say that the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 "caused" the changes in OAI or that the child labor prohibitions in the NRA codes "caused" the Social Security Act of 1935. Without going that far, it still seems worthwhile to take into account the underlying nationalization of child labor law when we study the New Deal, since this nationalization undoubtedly had an effect in increasing the number of potential child dependents in the country. It seems plausible that as legislators tightened up the American labor market, they were forced -- whether fully conscious of the connection or not -- to deal with the flip side of their reforms, the needs of families denied their traditional means of self-support. In fact, it would be a reasonable hypothesis to expect that southerners who were dragged into the enforcement of child labor laws probably preferred to have the "general" government pay the bill for this northern, union-inspired change in traditional family relations.

The implementation of child labor laws, of course, is not sufficient to explain all we would want to know about the origins and uneven development of the American welfare state. It seems helpful in understanding the child-centered character of the early American welfare state, along with the uneven establishment and timing of Progressive Era mothers' pension programs. On the other hand, this greater precision in explanation is obtained only by narrowing our focus to one program. Even with these qualifications, however, we think that an awareness of the role of child labor reform sets up some important landmarks for others. One crucial lesson seems to be the advantage of taking a disaggregated approach to understanding the American welfare state. Much of the previous work has been too abstract. Too much of the detail, variety, and reality of modern welfare programs has been sacrificed in order to explain welfare programs as products of some single underlying variable, some unifying historical trend, or some inevitable reaction to capitalist development. Finally, we might also be skeptical of suggestions that we can live without welfare programs for children and return to a system of private charitable support. The historic decision to eliminate child labor inadvertently closed the door on that policy option long ago.

C. Henry Kempe, "Approaches to Preventing Child Abuse: The Health Visitors Concept," in Gertrude Williams and John Money, eds., The Traumatic Abuse and Neglect of Children at Home ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University


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