Labor Market Politics and the Great War: The Department of Labor, the States, and the First U.S. Employment Service, 1907-1933

By William J. Breen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
State Initiatives and National Ambitions Origins of the U.S. Employment Service

U nemployment was a chronic, although curiously neglected, aspect of American industrial society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, traditional explanations of the causes of unemployment, which had stressed the moral failings of individuals, were being seriously questioned. For the first time, both the full extent of unemployment in the community and the impersonal nature of the forces causing it began to be clarified.1 A detailed analysis of the 1900 census figures on unemployment, published in 1915, showed that six and a half million working people, or nearly 25 percent of the work force, were unemployed for some part of the year: 50 percent of that group were unemployed for between one and three months, almost 40 percent for between four and six months, and over 10 percent for between seven and twelve months. More detailed surveys reinforced these findings.2 This increased awareness of the alarming extent of unemployment, coupled with a growing perception that most of it was caused by structural rather than personal deficiencies, began to focus attention on the issue.

From the turn of the century on, a number of legislators, reform groups, and social scientists had begun to probe the phenomenon of unemployment and to suggest remedies that might, at least, alleviate the sufferings of the unemployed. An increasing number of articles about unemployment began to appear in journals and magazines. In the more industrialized states, legislatures began to pass workers' compensation laws and minimum hours

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