Thus study began, as many do, with a surprising finding gleaned from a primary source. Reviewing data collected by the U.S. Children's Bureau on relief spending in the early depression, I noticed that most relief during the Hoover years was financed by public funds, not voluntary contributions. Like most historians of American social policy, I presumed that welfare prior to the New Deal was financed by private funds in the spirit of "voluntarism." Upon further review of the Children's Bureau series I noticed another striking fact: there was no significant increase in relief spending in the early months of the New Deal when, according to legend, Harry Hopkins, the new relief "czar," saved local relief with big new federal grants. There were, it seemed, a number of myths surrounding the origins and implementation of the first federal welfare program.
Mythology and welfare policy seem to fit comfortably together. Today, for example, we hear that the federal dole has virtually ended and that Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) has been turned back to the states. Yet federal welfare spending is actually significantly higher than it would have been had the recent reforms not passed, and the 1996 law actually imposes some rather formidable federal mandates (time limits and work requirements). Then there are the more popular myths about the moral character of welfare recipients and the cost of supporting them. In fact, public assistance is a relatively inexpensive way of assisting the poor, most of whom would rather work than be on the "dole." The New Deal found this out when it attempted to replace relief with public employment; states such as Wisconsin, which are attempting to carry out the provisions of the 1996 law in good faith, are relearning the lesson.