The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State

The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State

The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State

The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State

Synopsis

The relationship between welfare and racial inequality has long been understood as a fight between liberal and conservative forces. In The Segregated Origins of Social Security, Mary Poole challenges that basic assumption. Meticulously reconstructing the behind-the-scenes politicking that gave birth to the 1935 Social Security Act, Poole demonstrates that segregation was built into the very foundation of the welfare state because white policy makers--both liberal and conservative--shared an interest in preserving white race privilege.

Although northern white liberals were theoretically sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, Poole says, their primary aim was to save the American economy by salvaging the pride of America's "essential" white male industrial workers. The liberal framers of the Social Security Act elevated the status of Unemployment Insurance and Social Security--and the white workers they were designed to serve--by differentiating them from welfare programs, which served black workers.

Revising the standard story of the racialized politics of Roosevelt's New Deal, Poole's arguments also reshape our understanding of the role of public policy in race relations in the twentieth century, laying bare the assumptions that must be challenged if we hope to put an end to racial inequality in the twenty-first.

Excerpt

The greatest challenge of my work as a teacher of the history of race in America is addressing my students' beliefs that racial equality is a hopeless cause. These beliefs are only rarely articulated. But once, in the honors history class that I taught at the Rutgers University campus in innercity Newark, in the middle of a polite discussion about the racialization of poverty in the 1960s, a student asked, “Hasn't the government already done everything it can to help African Americans?” All eyes turned to me, indicating that a taboo had been broken, or perhaps the secret agreement of some others in the claim. At once the class jumped into gear and began to fight about affirmative action, with white and black students assuming leadership of opposing camps. The energy of the class had shifted dramatically, with students clamoring to be heard, stabbing the air with their index fingers as they leaped out of their seats to defend their “pro” or “con” position. The students were now engaged in a relevant topic; ostensibly I was doing my job. Yet I found myself deflated, struggling to stay present. I suspected that my students were not learning anything from the discussion, stuck as their arguments were in tired, circular grooves. But more than that, a pervasive hopelessness framed the comments of both the “pro” and “con” speakers, to which I found myself unable to respond. I noticed that the group was eager to defend or critique the fairness of affirmative action in theory, whether it was deserved and by whom, but was unwilling to consider even briefly whether it has been, or could actually be, effective. Becoming more alert, I began to see that my students had no vision of what racial equality would look like—they did not imagine it. Every speaker tacitly confirmed, by what they did not say, that racial inequality is an eternal part of the natural landscape and all efforts to change it have failed. Many Americans ensconced in white neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces may believe that the rise in the number of black politicians and movie stars means that racial inequality is gradually losing ground. But for my students in Newark, racial segregation was a fact of . . .

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