Historians have long viewed the United States as a laggard in developing a modern welfare state. Compared with Western European industrial countries, U.S. provision of unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, and other federally funded social benefits came very late, taking shape only in the 1930’s with other New Deal programs. Explanations for this delay have included the weakness of working-class organization and American mistrust of government.
Theda Skocpol, in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of social Policy in the United States, disagrees with these interpretations. She argues against the deterministic idea that social programs must take similar forms everywhere in response to similar experiences of industrialization and urbanization. There is thus no reason for U.S. social policy to have replicated that of other countries, in either content or timing. More important, according to Skocpol, the United States actually implemented various social policies quite early, in the form of pensions for Civil War veterans and mothers’ pensions and other legislation for women. While most of these programs did not last, they offer precedents and interesting alternatives to the welfare state that actually evolved. Far from ignoring the needs of the elderly, the U.S. government offered generous pensions to Union veterans of the Civil War. Perhaps to offset large federal surpluses generated by high tariffs, these pensions gradually became more generous and widely available. Indeed, by 1910, approximately 28 percent of elderly men were receiving federal pensions based on their service in the Union Army. Skocpol believes that this program had the potential to develop into social insurance for all workers and their families. Middle-class reformers such as the members of the American Association for Labor Legislation (AALL) certainly worked toward that goal during the Progressive period. She calls their approach “paternalist” social policy, because it would have focused mainly on men as family breadwinners. Since this development did not occur, she seeks an explanation.
She finds one in the distinctive nature of the American state. European industrial nations had unified central governments, sovereign legislatures, and the rudiments of civil service bureaucracies through which to administer developing social programs. In the United States, by contrast, the strongest elements within the state were courts and parties. Courts at the state and federal levels could thwart the popular will as expressed in legislation and thus discouraged faith in legislative solutions, especially within the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Political parties encouraged cross-class alliances among male citizens; through patronage, they became effective, self-sustaining machines for the provision of social services, thereby hindering the development of nonpartisan administrative agencies. Moreover, instead of a unified central government, the United States had powerful state governments. These factors together meant that U.S. social policy, whatever its eventual content, could not develop through the same mechanisms as existed in Europe.
Although funded and administered by the federal government, the Civil War pensions were never intended as a national social welfare policy. At first, they represented grateful aid to wounded Union veterans and their survivors after the bloodiest war Americans had ever known. Soon, however, the pensions became a cost-effective way for parties to procure the loyalty and vote of any man who had worn the Union uniform for ninety days. Like later social security entitlements, the program eventually provided supplementary income to many elderly men, regardless of their financial status. Nevertheless, it had by then become a notorious example of the corruption involved in governmental programs to distribute money or services directly to citizens.
Thus, instead of becoming the basis for a wider provision of social insurance for health, unemployment, and old age, the veterans’ pensions actually made such social policies less likely to be implemented. Middle-class reformers and organized labor could never agree on priorities. The former group saw the pensions as a typically corrupt result of party politics and so rejected old-age insurance; the AALL, however, did campaign vigorously for health insurance and an eight-hour day for all workers. The AFL saw most government programs as undermining its own efforts at collective bargaining and, as always, revocable by the courts; therefore, labor favored noncontributory old-age pensions but rejected other aspects of AALL proposals. The two groups’ failure to form a united front led to the downfall of paternalist social policy in the Progressive era.
While paternalist programs were failing, however, “maternalist” social policy made substantial gains. Although without the vote throughout most of the country, middle-class women achieved the enactment of laws to protect and aid women and children, such as protective hours legislation, minimum-wage laws, and mothers’ pensions at the state level and the Children’s Bureau (1912) and...
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