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The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State

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The relationship between welfare and racial inequality has long been understood as a fight between liberal and conservative forces. In The Segregated Origins of Social Security, Mary Poole challenges that basic assumption. Meticulously reconstructing the behind-the-scenes politicking that gave birth to the 1935 Social Security Act, Poole demonstrates that segregation was b The relationship between welfare and racial inequality has long been understood as a fight between liberal and conservative forces. In The Segregated Origins of Social Security, Mary Poole challenges that basic assumption. Meticulously reconstructing the behind-the-scenes politicking that gave birth to the 1935 Social Security Act, Poole demonstrates that segregation was built into the very foundation of the welfare state because white policy makers--both liberal and conservative--shared an interest in preserving white race privilege. Although northern white liberals were theoretically sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, Poole says, their primary aim was to save the American economy by salvaging the pride of America's "essential" white male industrial workers. The liberal framers of the Social Security Act elevated the status of Unemployment Insurance and Social Security--and the white workers they were designed to serve--by differentiating them from welfare programs, which served black workers. Revising the standard story of the racialized politics of Roosevelt's New Deal, Poole's arguments also reshape our understanding of the role of public policy in race relations in the twentieth century, laying bare the assumptions that must be challenged if we hope to put an end to racial inequality in the twenty-first.


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The relationship between welfare and racial inequality has long been understood as a fight between liberal and conservative forces. In The Segregated Origins of Social Security, Mary Poole challenges that basic assumption. Meticulously reconstructing the behind-the-scenes politicking that gave birth to the 1935 Social Security Act, Poole demonstrates that segregation was b The relationship between welfare and racial inequality has long been understood as a fight between liberal and conservative forces. In The Segregated Origins of Social Security, Mary Poole challenges that basic assumption. Meticulously reconstructing the behind-the-scenes politicking that gave birth to the 1935 Social Security Act, Poole demonstrates that segregation was built into the very foundation of the welfare state because white policy makers--both liberal and conservative--shared an interest in preserving white race privilege. Although northern white liberals were theoretically sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, Poole says, their primary aim was to save the American economy by salvaging the pride of America's "essential" white male industrial workers. The liberal framers of the Social Security Act elevated the status of Unemployment Insurance and Social Security--and the white workers they were designed to serve--by differentiating them from welfare programs, which served black workers. Revising the standard story of the racialized politics of Roosevelt's New Deal, Poole's arguments also reshape our understanding of the role of public policy in race relations in the twentieth century, laying bare the assumptions that must be challenged if we hope to put an end to racial inequality in the twenty-first.

30 review for The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State

  1. 5 out of 5

    Simon Purdue

    Mary Poole’s The Segregated Origins of Social Security seeks above all else to demonstrate that the welfare system in the United States has, from its very inception, been discriminatory and racially segregated. Poole argues that in all its non-medical programs the 1935 Social Security Act was deliberately structured to channel African Americans away from the programs designed for workers and into a system of public assistance in which more control could be exercised. In tracing the origins of th Mary Poole’s The Segregated Origins of Social Security seeks above all else to demonstrate that the welfare system in the United States has, from its very inception, been discriminatory and racially segregated. Poole argues that in all its non-medical programs the 1935 Social Security Act was deliberately structured to channel African Americans away from the programs designed for workers and into a system of public assistance in which more control could be exercised. In tracing the origins of this discrimination she found that it was not, as she expected, simply a case of southern congressional leadership driving a racist welfare policy, but a shifting web of alliances that crossed regions and parties. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s own cabinet were among the most influential voices in forming the discriminatory nature of the Social Security Act. Poole argues that these voices genuinely sought to create a better, fairer America, but that their vision was steeped in racial bias and whitewashed by privilege. Poole argues that in the pre-SSA era there was a feeling of hope that New Deal policy might address the issue of racial injustice in America. FDR had appointed Mary McLeod Bethune (a Black woman) to his cabinet, many mass movements (such as the CIO) were promoting interracial collaboration, and the Democratic party was suddenly commanding control of the African American voting bloc, led by religious and social leaders. However Ralph Bunche noted that the re-ordering of society brought by the New Deal also had the potential to forever “cement the Negro in a permanent position of segregated inferiority in society.” Poole argues that the latter sadly came true. The proposed Lundeen and Townsend social security bills had the potential to weaken the racial barriers in US society, but the SSA- formed and won by voices across the political aisle and across the nation, including those closest to FDR- only served to entrench them. The influence of Northern elites on this cannot be understated, and the Wisconsin-based CES (Committee on Economic Security) was highly influential in the process. The group followed a policy of ‘colorblindness’ that did not directly espouse white supremacy but nonetheless resulted in its entrenchment in welfare law. The group advocated for the exclusion of farm-workers and domestic workers from the employment protection acts for reasons supposedly not motivated by race, however it was African American workers who lost out dramatically as a result. Poole’s book complicates the previous understanding of the racist nature of the New Deal. Her work challenges the ‘solid south’ interpretation that seeks to defend FDR and place the blame on the southern block of congressional leadership, instead demonstrating the important role that racial privilege played across party lines. She questions the previously accepted narrative that the New Deal policy was racially motivated, instead suggesting that a system of privilege and supposed colorblindness led to the entrenchment of racial inequality. The victory of the North in the New Deal order came at the expense of the predominantly black south, meaning that many Southern African Americans were left impoverished and discriminated against. The enforced system of continued dependence on welfare that they experienced was characterized by many as little more than a ‘new form of slavery’.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

    Important points, weakly argued.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jessi

    This book convincingly depicted how racism and white privilege played a role in how the Social Security Act was constructed and administered by the New Deal bureaucracy in the 1930's.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Alex

    It is absolutely amazing to see how deliberately racism was built into our social welfare system. As a side note, Mary's my cousin!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Witrak

  6. 5 out of 5

    Joe Costello

  7. 5 out of 5

    Anne Louise

  8. 4 out of 5

    Roy Filippo

  9. 4 out of 5

    Patria Alvelo

  10. 5 out of 5

    Dani Massaro

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

  12. 5 out of 5

    Josh

  13. 5 out of 5

    Samantha

  14. 4 out of 5

    Katie

  15. 5 out of 5

    Nikhil P. Freeman

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

  17. 4 out of 5

    Denzel Scott

  18. 5 out of 5

    Holly Fitzpatrick

  19. 5 out of 5

    Izz

  20. 4 out of 5

    Evan Sullivan

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sean

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kay

  23. 5 out of 5

    Noah A

  24. 5 out of 5

    Rhonda

  25. 4 out of 5

    Circe's Booked

  26. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ariel

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

  29. 5 out of 5

    Chelsie

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jenazepol

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