Fate, Responsibility, and "Natural" Disaster Relief: Narrating the American Welfare State

By Landis, Michele L. | Law & Society Review, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Fate, Responsibility, and "Natural" Disaster Relief: Narrating the American Welfare State


Landis, Michele L., Law & Society Review


This essay argues that the history of the American welfare suite is inextricably bound up with disaster relief. It focuses on the New Deal, which was justified using numerous precedents drawn from the previous 150 years of federal disaster relief. After sketching this early history, including the development of a compelling moral narrative of fault and blame, I examine congressional speeches, briefs filed in the central legal cases of the New Deal by the Roosevelt administration and its opponents, Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, and photographs taken by New Deal employees to trace how the Depression was narrated as a "disaster" whose victims were entitled to federal relief

Will the Senator from Delaware explain, if he can, what difference it makes to a citizen of the United States if he is homeless, without food or clothing in the dead of winter, whether it is the result of flood, or whether it is due to an economic catastrophe over which he had no control? I see no distinction ...

-Sen. Robert La Follette, Jr., December 1930

During the summer of 1930, in the midst of the deepening Depression, drought crept across the rural American South. Millions of families in an area spanning 26 states faced the coming winter literally barefoot and starving to death. In the bituminous coal fields of West Virginia and Kentucky, thousands of miners struck against the greedy brutality of the mine operators. The miners' families were evicted from company towns as the winter snow fell 10 inches thick across the Appalachian Mountains. The urban centers of the North fared little better, entering their second winter of bread lines and soaring unemployment. And in the Senate, a war raged from December to February over whether the federal government would dispense funds to ameliorate the suffering.

The charge for direct relief was led by the insurgent Wisconsin Republican Robert La Follette, Jr., who filled hundreds of pages in the Congressional Record with letters meticulously documenting the plight of the poor. President Hoover and the regular Republican leadership insisted that only state, local, and private funds could lawfully be expended to relieve both the drought and the Depression (Hoover 1934 [1931]). Despite Hoover's efforts to force the Red Cross to dispense private relief, the agency resisted, arguing that unemployment and drought were both outside its mandate because neither was a "natural" disaster (Woodruff 1985:40; Dulles 1950:278). According to the agency's Central Committee, the drought was caused by bad weather and bad credit, while unemployment was a purely "economic" problem. Only during true natural disasters could "victims of circumstance" be distinguished from those who were "wilfully and maliciously" needy (Dulles 1950:277-78). The winter dragged on as Congress, Hoover, and the Red Cross stalemated over aid.

Today, Hoover's stand against drought and unemployment relief is understood as the last gasp of the Old Order (Schlesinger 1957) before Roosevelt's New Deal swept both it and a recalcitrant Supreme Court away and restructured federal spending in a "constitutional moment" (Ackerman 1991:40; Sunstein 1996:253-55) ratifying, in Degler's (1959) view, a "third American revolution." Hoover himself acknowledged as much. Speaking in St. Louis in 1935, he complained bitterly that despite his efforts to "relieve distress which flows from national calamity," history had rewritten him as a heartless scrooge: "All this was forgotten on March 3, 1933. We may accept that the date of Creation was moved to March 4" (Hoover 1937 [1935]:385).

Hoover was right. It is an article of faith in the post-New Deal legal historiography of the American welfare state that American social welfare spending was stunted by a narrow conception of federal responsibility (Holt 1975; Tugwell 1957). Despite efforts by historians and Roosevelt detractors to rehabilitate Hoover, his image as short-sighted and hard-hearted persists (Romasco 1975; Mitchell 1947; Rausch 1944). …

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