By Susan Gluss
Assistant Professor Karen Tani is a scholar of U.S. legal history and social welfare law. Her new book, States of Dependency, explores the evolution of welfare in the U.S., spanning the New Deal to the modern era. The book provides a unique understanding of how the social services program emerged and how it redefined the meaning of citizenship.
Tani teaches Torts, Legal History, and Bureaucratic Justice. She’s affiliated with Berkeley Law’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program and the Center for the Study of Law and Society. This interview is based on her written answers to a series of questions, edited for the web.
What inspired you to write about welfare—what issues caught your attention?
As someone who came into adulthood under the shadow of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform (ending ‘welfare as we know it’), I have long felt puzzled by the way the U.S. deals with poverty. I grew up perceiving this country as wealthy, powerful and urgently concerned with the rights of its citizens. I was confused about why my government seemed so anxious to deny responsibility for poor women and children, and about why policymakers seemed especially eager to deny welfare the status of a “right.”
If the idea of welfare as a right is so obviously problematic, how do we explain the support this idea had in the 1960s, not only from a mass movement of poor citizens, but also from powerful lawyers and judges? If fairness and equality remain key tenets of American government, how do we explain a system of social welfare laws that tolerates and even reproduces inequality?
What did you focus on specifically?
I wanted a better understanding of the legal arguments that lawyers and legal activists made on behalf of welfare claimants. I also wanted to know more about where these arguments came from and why lawyers in the 1960s believed they would succeed, given the scant number of supportive precedents. The book is not really a history of cause lawyers, however. In fact, I found that federal administrators played a bigger and more supportive role than other accounts suggest.
How does this book challenge welfare’s conventional narrative?
When describing the U.S. welfare system, scholars frequently invoke the poor law system of Elizabethan England and imply that its tenets endured here. They characterize the welfare rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s as a laudable but ultimately unsuccessful effort to change the basic framework—of local control, meager benefits, and a careful policing of the line between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.
But with the introduction of federal grants-in-aid, American poor relief became more centralized, more rule-bound and more professional. As early as the late 1930s, government officials used rights language to refer to poor relief—mainly as a way of explaining how New Deal public assistance differed from the “old poor law.” These statements suggest that the welfare rights movement has a deeper and more complicated history than we have imagined and that its history is bound up with broader changes in American governance.
Is the welfare system simply about the allocation of money, or are there other elements at play?
Welfare programs are not only about the distribution of money, but also about the boundaries of citizenship. When we look at who receives money, and on what terms, we learn something about who is included in the polity and what individuals need to do to remain in good standing.
In the U.S., the welfare system also implicates federalism—the division of powers and responsibilities between different levels of government. My book shows that disagreements about welfare are often, at heart, conflicts about who should have access to the benefits of citizenship and which level of government ought to decide.
What were the more contentious conflicts about welfare?
There were disagreements about who ought to control the hiring process and set the basic ground rules—the federal, state or local government? There were also disagreements about what kinds of rights and privacy protections welfare recipients ought to receive.
Federal administrators insisted that welfare claimants have a way to appeal decisions about their cases—but many state officials disagreed. And, of course, there were disagreements about who should be receiving aid in the first place. One of the most dramatic disputes was over whether state public assistance programs ought to include American Indians living on reservations. Federal administrators insisted on inclusion; state officials in Arizona and New Mexico dissented.
Opponents called federal grants for public assistance a “mixture of blackmail and bribery.” Why?
This quote comes from Republican Senator Barry Goldwater’s (ghostwritten) manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative (1960). Politicians like Goldwater recognized that federal grants were enticing, especially to states that lacked resources, but also that federal grants came with “strings attached.” They especially resented the way that these “strings” could skew states’ priorities. Federal-state grants remain a widely used policy device, but they also continue to produce great conflict because of their coercive potential.
Despite welfare rights laws, 48.7 million Americans were living below the official poverty line in 2013. How is this possible?
The truth is that the U.S. social safety net has never been robust enough to keep all Americans above the official poverty line. The U.S. does not have a guaranteed minimum income; many existing programs provide only temporary or partial support.
To the extent that poor Americans are able to meet their basic needs, it is often by combining a range of public and private support programs. Why this is possible is a harder question, but I think it’s because to many Americans, the system that produces these outcomes appears both natural and legitimate.