Welfare and rights before the movement: rights as a language of the state.

Author:Tani, Karen M.
Position:III. The Enduring Problem of the Local through Conclusion, with footnotes, p.346-346

    Several years into the program, the Social Security Board still employed its carrot-and-stick approach, described in Part I, to encourage more modern state public assistance plans. But increasingly, the content of those plans was not the SSB's biggest problem. "[T]he actuality is worse than the plan," came the refrain from federal agents in the field. (133) It was enough to give even Frank Bane, the SSB's Executive Director and a longtime leader of public welfare reform, cause for reflection. "[N]o nation can wisely legislate beyond its capacity to administer," he conceded in 1939. (134) This Part details how federal administrators came to perceive their local counterparts as the central roadblock to achieving the Social Security Act's goals and explains why direct administrative levers proved insufficient to meet the challenge.

    As discussed in Part I, most states were eager to cooperate with the SSB (at least during the early years). (135) But the SSB quickly became concerned about states' capacities to fulfill their end of the bargain. State officials came to the table with all the right props and promises--pleasing charts of bureaucratic authority and detailed diagrams of their line-and-staff organizations. The emerging truth, however, was that the thin dendrites on these organizational charts had far more power than the visual aids implied. The BPA estimated that of the 45,000 persons employed in state and local public assistance administration in June 1943, some 38,500, or 86%, worked in offices established in county, city, or other local government units. (136) States delegated great authority to these units, which processed applications, investigated needs and resources, and delivered benefits.

    States purported to control these local administrators, but federal officials expressed both increasing uncertainty about the adequacy of that supervision and increasing certitude about the importance of decisions made at the ground level. "[V]ery good laws and plans" are not self-executing, BPA director Jane Hoey observed in 1937; their success depends entirely on "the understanding, sympathy, knowledge, and skill of those who actually come in contact with persons in need." (137) Local workers, another experienced public welfare administrator agreed, were the ones who would see that the laws served their intended beneficiaries or who would instead "prostitute[]" those laws "to ulterior political or personal ends." (138) Just what were they doing?

    These anxieties stemmed in part from history. (139) Anecdotes from the years of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the intrepid federal intervention immediately preceding the Social Security Act, revealed, first, that the machinery of local poor relief was extensive, convoluted, and not at all uniform. (140) Second, the people running the show at the local level were accustomed to the old paradigm of poor relief. They had not participated in drafting the new social welfare schemes and many did not share the New Dealers' basic worldview. FERA officials somewhat snobbishly described the local administrators they encountered as amateurs who tended to the poor "merely as a part-time or extra duty." (141) The best were well meaning but inept; the worst were corrupt; most were "indifferen[t]." (142) FERA's issuance of personnel standards helped the federal perspective make inroads, according to reports, but could not raise the supply of adequately trained persons. (143) Third, not all states proved capable of imposing any kind of standards on local workers. As late as the 1920s, according to public welfare expert and FERA administrator Josephine Brown, "[f]ederal and state agencies had little or no official relationship with local public outdoor relief." (144) Especially in rural areas, communities perceived federal and state emergency relief efforts as "foreign" invasions. (145) "We accept [the directives from Washington]" because people are starving, an old county judge warned one FERA official, "but ... the time is coming when we feel that we must again get back into the picture." (146)

    The federal administrators' anxieties about the local were not just rooted in history, however. After the enactment of the Social Security Act and the approval of state plans, SSB representatives traveling around the nation reported that local public assistance workers ignored, resisted, or simply failed to encounter state authority, while they regularly felt the influence of town and county. One BPA official reported in 1937 that, despite state intervention, towns in Massachusetts refused to pay Aid to Dependent Children to some families that were clearly eligible. Local officials were administering the program in the same way that they had administered mothers' pensions; namely, by limiting it to families who had been "settled" in the town for some time and who met local standards of appropriate conduct. (147) (Families deemed ineligible for ADC might receive public aid, but it would be from "general relief," a category that was not federally subsidized and hence not subject to federal rules about fairness and uniformity.) Similar reports came from the federal officials monitoring public assistance litigation. A court case in Kansas revealed to them that a county welfare board--without state agency approval--had adopted a regulation making automobile ownership grounds for rejecting applications; county officials removed the plaintiff from the old-age assistance rolls after finding that his son owned a car. (148) Other surveys confirmed the trend. As a BPA Field Division report summarized in 1941, the establishment of state supervision was "a slow and tedious process"; "[1]ocal autonomy" remained "an important factor"; and community "attitudes and pressures" resulted in "wide variations" in local agency practices. (149)

    Other accounts revealed the political clout of local officials vis-a-vis the states. "It is ... a new and not a welcome experience," Michigan's state relief administrator explained in 1937, for local units to apply to the state for funds and open themselves to state scrutiny. (150) Where local units were powerful, they made their disaffection known. The General Counsel's office reported in 1940 that when the California state agency attempted to withhold funds from Los Angeles County to discipline it for neglecting state requirements, the County drafted a bill depriving the agency of its power. Only federal pressure, the GC implied, prevented the state legislature from acting. (151) County resistance in another instance--this time, to a state decision regarding an individual ADC case--was so strong that the same state agency sought a court order compelling the county auditor to pay the claim. (152) Reaction against state direction was not unique to California. Local public welfare commissioners in New York "jealously guarded" their autonomy. (153) Local government units frightened Minnesota's state agency into sitting on its hands. (154) Other state agencies may not have acted out of fear, but administrators in Indiana, Utah, and Oklahoma, for example, were so concerned about intruding on local prerogatives that when asked to review a local decision, they took extraordinary measures to resolve disputes through back channels or to dissuade claimants from going forward. (155)

    The records of state welfare directors, social work educators, and others immersed in public welfare administration convey the problem's deep and tangled roots. One Georgia public welfare official, Wilma Van Dusseldorp, reported to the Southern Sociological Society in 1938 that local workers were "in the center of almost overwhelming pressures." "There are hundreds of applicants--each presenting his need according to his conception of his rights"; "[t]here is the County Board--composed of people whose interests reflect the insight and aim of the local and state political factions"; there are the other county officials "bearing down upon the local workers"; and there are the "expectations and criticisms" of the "general community." (156) County officials in Alabama, for example, impressed one touring public welfare consultant with their eagerness to know whether the public funds granted to "Mr. Jones" were going to "Ole Man Jones with the farm across Hokey Creek" or to "Peg-leg Jones who lived on this side of the creek since his wife died last summer." (157) Anonymous "Friend[s]," "Citizen[s]," and "Taxpayer[s]" reportedly sent public relief agencies daily batches of letters "yelping for the scalp of some poor client who is suspected of chiseling": "Mr. Jones has a 2937 Chevrolet"; "How come a person on widow's pension can buy diamonds and wrist watches for her children?"; "Mrs. Jones is just like a prostitute." (158) Neighborly concern, these anecdotes suggest, could lead to what one administrator described as a feeling of constant community surveillance. (159) Van Dusseldorp recalled one county director who had spent six months studying social work and hence "had some ideals about what good practice in public welfare work was," but confided that because of the pressures of the job, she might soon be administering aid in the "old poor relief" manner--federal administrators' biggest fear. (160)

    State agency reinforcement of "good practice" in public welfare likely helped some well-intentioned county directors, but in many locations state agencies could not or would not intervene. Massachusetts, for example, contained 355 administrative units dealing with relief in 1938, and local units "adamant[ly] refus[ed] to give up functions even to the next largest subdivision, the county." (161) With so many recalcitrant jurisdictions, effective state supervision was challenging. The GC's general review of fair hearing records confirmed "a strong parochial influence" in particular areas. Examining appeals to state agencies from local decisions, the...

To continue reading