From its earliest days, the American welfare state — the web of public goods that offer Americans a safety net when we are struck by global or personal crises like economic downturns and sickness — has been expanded in moments of disaster. Yet all too often these new resources have been temporary. Though Social Security has been maintained well beyond the Depression that drove its creation, the child-care centers the federal government operated during World War II were closed when soldiers came home, for example. The result is America’s uniquely patchy social safety net that leaves us all vulnerable in times of economic crisis. This time, legislation to help Americans recover from our dual health and economic crises should be built for the long haul, ensuring broad and permanent access to public goods — those goods essential to all of our well-being and success in a democratic society.
The long history of the American welfare state reveals a system built around the idea that the proper recipients of government aid were blameless victims of bad luck or heroes who responded to a crisis. During the 19th century, the federal government offered financial protection to those deemed worthy of relief from ill fortune, including Revolutionary War widows; veterans of wars, most notably the Civil War; businesses affected by drought; and those who lost property during the War of 1812. This practice began with legislation offering relief to specific individuals, often following a petition, but soon developed into “general relief bills” where Congress awarded relief to entire classes of people defined by the experience of a particular disaster.
Franklin Roosevelt used this tradition of federal disaster relief to sell the New Deal to the American public, framing the recipients of new benefits like Social Security and unemployment insurance as victims of a particular economic disaster. And so, while these programs built the lasting architecture of the American welfare state, they did not alter the underlying belief that public goods were for faultless victims. Allowing this belief to remain in place has undermined further efforts to expand the welfare state and been marshaled in service of paring back benefits. New Deal programs also deliberately excluded the vast majority of black Americans, a concession to Southern members of Congress without whose support legislation would not have passed, a development that defined African Americans as undeserving of government support no matter the circumstances.
The expansion of the welfare state in response to crisis continued to shape and limit the long-term reach of government programs in the postwar period. For example, during World War II, the federal government created and ran day-care centers around the nation to enable women to enter the workforce to help increase wartime production. But, despite organized protest from women, the government quickly and purposefully shuttered these centers after the war to encourage women to return to the home and free up jobs for men returning from military service. During the crisis of war, women who went into the workforce were heroes who deserved support; after the war, women were expected to stay home. Women who could not or would not meet this expectation and remained in the workforce were left to piece together expensive, often inadequate child care options.
In the 1960s, the crisis narrative was once again deliberately marshaled to support Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs including the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. Johnson framed the policies as part of a “War on Poverty” to help drive them through Congress. These programs were landmark wins and, today, form broad reaching, critical components of the American welfare state. They have formed the basis of further expansions to that state, but Medicare and Medicaid were also half measures, a scaled back alternative to efforts to pass a universal health insurance program. In the United States it was only possible to nationalize health insurance for those perceived to be in crisis.
Since the 1960s, legislation has frequently broadened access to Social Security and Medicare to certain classes of people deemed be in crisis. For example, in the 1970s, women unable to make ends meet after divorcing under new no-fault divorce laws won special Social Security benefits and renal disease patients who could not afford newly available, lifesaving dialysis won early access to Medicare by marshaling the narrative of crisis. Both of these classes retain special protections to this day, but many others still struggle to access health care and retirement security. The recent expansion of paid leave to those specifically suffering from or caring for someone with covid-19, follows this pattern of highly specific expansions of the welfare state that leave those who suffer in a subsequent, different crisis without aid.
While the deserving-victim-of-a-crisis narrative has helped some win benefits, it has also consistently undermined the claims of others. By spending the better part of two decades framing the recipients of welfare as irresponsible young black mothers, policymakers in both parties successfully paved the way to replace the Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) program with the much less generous Temporary Aid for Needy Families program in 1996. And the federal government’s tragically delayed response to the AIDS crisis can be traced to social conservatives’ desire not to invest in the gay community with which the disease had become associated. In both cases, the potential recipients of aid were deemed undeserving because of prejudice.
We are at the very beginning of the legislative efforts to help Americans endure and then recover from the covid-19 crisis. As these efforts proceed, Congress must learn from the history of America’s crisis-based welfare state and meet the challenges of the moment with a structural response. Narrowly tailored responses — like those crafted for working women during World War II, renal disease patients and divorced women — leave us all vulnerable. Imagine how the current crisis might have looked different, if everyone who felt sick was able to get care and take time off from work from the beginning.
Congress should look to New Deal programs that, while far from perfect in their reach, responded to the Great Depression by not only offering immediate relief but also creating lasting and broadly accessible programs to help prevent future disasters. Social Security serves as an essential protection against poverty in old age to this day.
In our current crisis, immediate relief is clearly necessary, but covid-19 is showing us that ongoing paid sick and family leave is needed to prevent future pandemics as much as it is needed by the currently ill. Moreover, it is exposing how vulnerable we all are to forces beyond our control. Regardless of beliefs about moral worthiness, as individuals and as a nation robust public goods protect us from economic and social collapse in the face of disaster.