"Rationality & Welfare: Public Discussion of Poverty and Social Insurance in the United States 1875-1935"

by Professor Theron Schlabach


Perhaps no single endeavor of a modern society tells more about that society than its system of welfare. Modern welfare systems are political creations, they deal in matters ranging from the economic to the sociological to the psychological, and they reflect common denominators in the social, cultural, and religious values that the people of a nation hold. In the United States in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth, social reformers, interest group partisans, and other public commentators carried on a vigorous public discussion of welfare problems and their solution, a discussion that finally culminated in the Social Security Act of 1935. This study describes and comments on that discussion, especially on the social insurance movement that it produced, beginning about the turn of the century.

The study examines public utterances, especially as they illuminated Americans' attitudes toward impoverished and dependent people. The focus is on ideas and attitudes, rather than on organizational histories of one or more social insurance propaganda groups, or upon the legislative progress and fate of particular social insurance bills. It is on ideas which propagandists were willing to express openly, in the efforts to shape public attitudes or to identify their causes with beliefs and assumptions that they perceived that the public already held. Yet this is not a study merely of ideas in the abstract, examined for their own sakes. Rather it deals with those ideas that actually or potentially affected social development--those ideas that proponents actually proposed, by more or less careful social engineering, to build into institutional structures. Historian Stephen Ambrose has edited a book, Institutions in Modern America: Innovation in Structure and Process (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), around the concept of institutional history, and introduced it with a perceptive essay on the need for historians to illuminate the process of institution-building. This study is in that vein. Its thesis is that the discussion of welfare exhibited the same urge toward more highly rationalized structures that was transforming other social institutions from corporations to universities; but that the rationalizing ideal had to compete with another concept of welfare stressing personalized help and relationships.

This investigation was supported in part by a grant from the Social Security Administration, U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Washington, D. C. I wish to convey my appreciation for that support, especially to Mr. Frank Caffee, Mrs. Virginia Reno, and others of the Social Security Administration Research Grants Staff. Goshen College, the recipient institution, also furnished substantial support, granted me a year without teaching duties for my research, and surrounded me with congenial colleagues who encouraged me intellectually and personally. Sem Sutter, a history major at Goshen, proved to be a most capable research assistant. My deep thanks to these also.

Theron F. Schlabach
Associate Professor of History
Goshen College

September 27, 1969