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

By Jeff Singleton | Go to book overview

reimbursed for food orders, while the state legislature debated the relative merits of new taxes or a bond issue. Stafford called relief in the state a "political football" and blamed instability on "the stubborn survival of those same attitudes upon which the old poor-law system had been founded." 88 Yet even the modernizers, under constant fiscal pressure, could adopt draconian policies and justify them using traditional rhetoric. Bruce Blumell has shown how the Washington State Department of Public Welfare, a model social agency by the standards of the late 1930s, consistently underfunded the general relief program, even though it was abundantly clear that large numbers of needy workers were not being accepted by the WPA. Indeed, state relief director Charles Ernst seemed intent on eliminating general relief altogether. In May of 1936 he called on local relief administrators to purge the relief rolls of all but the most needy applicants: "home visitors should increase their drive to put the burden of proof on the able-bodied client that he has made every effort to find employment before we give him relief." Later he told officials that "the main thing . . . is your change of attitude from one in which we are feeling responsible for providing relief, to the new attitude of expecting the client to be responsible for getting a job." 89

The 1935 shift in national welfare policy did not end the "dole," as New Deal officials had hoped, nor did it result in a retreat to traditional "poor law" relief, as many social workers feared. Rather, modernized public welfare became the safety net for low-wage workers. The emergency relief administrations of the FERA period had been institutionalized as state public welfare departments. The welfare reform movement of the 1920s had succeeded in creating professional public agencies at the state level, but in the process "welfare" was now almost exclusively associated with relief-giving. Initially, the targeted programs financed under the Ssocial Security Act proved more popular than general relief, but they were eventually tainted with the stigma of the "dole." These developments left an unpopular, bureaucratic welfare system vulnerable to periodic assaults from critics of the welfare state and to futile reform efforts by its liberal defenders. This was the central dynamic of welfare policy until Bill Clinton promised to "end welfare as we know it" (and coupled this promise with an important policy breakthrough--time limits).


NOTES
1.
Edwin Amenta has described the New Deal's 1935 program as a "work and relief" policy. This is certainly an accurate description of the policy that emerged in the late 1930s. But a national relief program was precisely what administration officials hoped to avoid. Although the social insurance provisions of the Social Security Act initially took a back seat to relief--in the form of federal

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

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Contributions in American History ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Chapter 1 - Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State 1
  • Notes 18
  • Chapter 2 - The "Rising Tide of Relief" 27
  • Notes 48
  • Chapter 3 - The Myth of Voluntarism 57
  • Notes 82
  • Chapter 4 - The National Dole 93
  • Notes 120
  • Chapter 5 - Work Relief 131
  • Notes 160
  • Chapter 6 - Ending the Dole as We Knew It 173
  • Notes 199
  • Conclusion 209
  • Notes 217
  • Appendix - Relief Estimates and the Children's Bureau Series 221
  • Notes 224
  • Bibliography 227
  • Index 239
  • About the Author 245
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