Welfare expands in the 1960s

Migration of African Americans from the rural South, and its effects

Migration brought blacks to the cities. It wasn’t an overnight process, but there were some broad trends going on, from which we’re still feeling effects today–modernization of agriculture replaced low-wage workers and manual labor with machinery. Southern agriculture was traditionally the most labor-intensive, having been developed on the backs of African slaves. When slavery was abolished, low paying farm jobs were still the easiest for many blacks in the South to get. Welfare law was used to enforce low-wage work in the fields during the growing and harvest seasons. Mechanization of farming may have increased productivity on farms–at least until one starts to calculate the costs of using fossil fuels to achieve that productivity–but it also uprooted the labor force, mostly black. This wasn’t entirely a bad thing. Many were practically indentured servants, tied to their employers through debt, or because of residency laws and the difficulty of relocating and getting welfare benefits. This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that there were limitless opportunities waiting for those who did migrate (and 20 million or so did migrate between the 40s and the 60s).

Several mechanisms were used to enforce blacks’ indentured servitude:

  1. kicking people off of the welfare rolls during the growing season, when labor demands were high (and an organized workforce could bargain for better wages, conditions), meaning many had little choice but to work in the fields, even mothers with children at home
  2. ‘residence laws’ (requiring people to live for a certain period of time before being eligible for assistance) were used to keep people from moving and collecting welfare in another location
  3. benefits were adjusted to local labor markets (remember the principle that welfare should be less appealing than the lowest employment opportunities)–so, where were they higher, Alabama or Manhattan?
  4. poor families with two parents were excluded from receiving AFDC until 1961 (using the ‘able-bodied’ argument)
  5. black single mothers were discriminated against:
  6. midnight raids and ‘man in the house’ rules (if caught with another man in the house, she would lose benefits)–totally unconstitutional, but standard practice in the South
  7. ‘Good housekeeping’ ‘rules’ that allowed welfare workers to take a family off the rolls if they deemed a house to be ‘poorly maintained’ (and most houses have a few corners that could be used as exhibit A in a white glove test …)
  8. well over 50% of black women and children were in the workforce–few if any safeguards on child labor existed for blacks (what about migrant workers today?)
  9. ‘illegitimacy,’ birth out of wedlock, could cost a woman her assistance
  10. blacks were often flat-out denied welfare benefits to which they were enitled
  11. ‘work training’ was often required in low-wage sectors (menial jobs, such as dishwashing, housecleaning)
  12. the ‘employable mother‘ rule required black women to work in the fields if there was work to be done and a labor shortage
  13. unless they could show proof of employment, they could be denied other assistance–gues what type of employment was available??

Migration was mainly to the Industrial North and Northeast (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC), but also the Midwest (Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland) and even the West (Los Angeles) and large Southern cities (Atlanta). Welfare agencies were not extremely receptive to the new immigrants. Their job opportunities were limited, and racism, though perhaps less overt and blatant than in the South, still limited blacks’ employment opportunities–there were economic and social inequalities blacks faced in cities. And remember that many were coming from rural areas–this was a traumatic uprooting of the population.

Several factors converged to create political and social unrest. For blacks, there were few opportunities. They faced racism, denial of welfare benefits, poverty, etc. But, the 1960s were a period of sweeping social change. The injustices of racism led to a more vocal and successful Civil Rights Movement. There were other groups concerned about the environment and pollution (initially anyway, this had a lot to do with agricultural modernization and the use of petrochemicals and pesticides, of which Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring). The U.S. Government was escalating its involvement in Vietnam. Mass migration and lack of opportunity had led to mass poverty in large cities, decaying neighborhoods–the same sort of process goes on in much of the third world today. Cities became hotbeds of protest, and the first efforts of the government to count how many poor there were, or even define what poverty was, were being made. In essence, the Kennedy Administration had given voice to the poor, among which blacks were disproportionately represented. It may be quite true that the Kennedy Administration was committed to addressing poverty, but the authors would point out that it was also in their self-interests to do something about the unrest, before large cities became ungovernable.

The Feds step in again–The Great Society

As happened in the 1930s, the Federal Government intervened–unrest had created a situtation of high unemployment, this time driven by modernization, rather than economic depression. This time the target was the inner cities–there was a definite urban bias to these welfare initiatives, towards metropolitan areas (especially the largest). Welfare agencies had successfully excluded many blacks and other poor groups from receiving benefits to which they were entitled. Racism was pervasive–there were (lower-paying) jobs for blacks, and there were jobs for whites (for instance, in the welfare system), but for those who couldn’t find work, there was little assurance that government efforts, funded through traditional state and local channels of relief, would reach non-white populations in inner cities. Racial tensions escalated dramatically, and law enforcement as often as not exacerbated racial tensions.

The Kennedy (and later Johnson Administration) perceived there to be some serious problems (of both a political and social nature), and set about devising strategies to address them. They declared a ‘war’ on poverty. Under Johnson this was referred to as the ‘Great Society.’ From a policy standpoint, the Great Society included many Federal interventions to help blacks get more from local government. Many of these programs essentially bypassed local government to do this. In other words, the feds intervened because local governments were not ensuring that non-white groups were receiving equal treatment in the welfare system. From a political standpoint, the government needed to address urban unrest. By the mid 1960s, there were riots in major cities over working and living conditions among the poor. A couple questions to consider: 1) Why would the feds bypass local government? 2) There were plenty of existing programs to deal with the problems being encountered in the inner cities–why were these not used to channel relief efforts?

Remember the political nature of welfare. The Feds were addressing poverty, yes, but also had political motivations, some of which included:

  1. building a constituency-jobs at local agencies were staffed by blacks (rather than traditional social services taking over these tasks), which would not have been the case with social services (wouldn’t have transformed hiring practices …). This is good for votes come election time. At the same time, obviously it’s empowering to African Americans in the cities.
  2. an effort to undercut state and local agencies, and build a national network between the federal government and local ‘ghettos.’ Again, there are political benefits to this beyond helping a disenfranchised group.
  3. There was a general sentiment that local politicians, given money from the feds for inner city blacks, would find other ways to spend it. Racism was still rampant, and opportunities for blacks extremely limited. Their reaction to black migration and riots would tend to support some level of suspicion on handing them blank checks to deal with the problems. The Administration sought ways to retain more control over how money was spent.

According to the authors, what made the Great Society programs so unique was that they used federal resources to ‘unlock’ other welfare resources that had been denied blacks for decades. Relief efforts often took the form of ‘community action programs.’ These programs addressed various problems-juvenile delinquency, health issues, poverty, mental health, bad neighborhoods, etc., and were often administered by what came to be referred to as ‘community action agencies’, essentially neighborhood service centers, that were often privately run.

Transformation of power structures

The concept of the Great Society was radical–the Feds stepping in to protect minorities from local discrimination or indifference. City and state officials were not pleased in many cases, and of course there was much opposition. Not all of it was racially motivated–part was control of resources, power struggles over who had authority to make decisions about what was happening in cities. But it did transform power relations in large cities, and in many cases diminished the power of city political machines, such as that in Chicago under Mayor Richard Daley.

Local agencies were used to put further political pressure on city officials, to get more aid for blacks and inner city populations. federal funding allowed Great Society-founded agencies to harass local government-by the late 1960s, it was working–local officials were having to deal with local agencies.
Money might be used to:

  • Get inspections of slum buildings;
  • open up welfare coffers (release money long denied eligible blacks);
  • advocate for better law enforcement in ghetto areas;
  • advocate for welfare recipients and applicants (even accompany them to the office);
  • in many places, blacks no longer kowtowed to welfare officials–often threatened legal action, in fact;
  • they were advocates for the poor, mostly black population;
    • but they were using a case method–it was time consuming, costly, ineffective to accompany and defend individuals
    • initiated collective bargaining in some areas
    • One eventual outcome of this strategy was the NWRO-National Welfare Rights Organization. The very notion that poor people have rights to welfare . . . entitlements . . . was radical. The NWRO didn’t become, as you might suspect, a powerful political player. Why not?

But whether the money and resources were actually reaching the poor, or whether they were grabbed up by the most militant factions in the ghettos, is debatable. The Federal Government didn’t often get along with either the cities, states, or the groups running local welfare agencies.

Some outcomes

  • integration of blacks into political processes in many cities (first black mayors came out of this era) it did change power relations in the cities, gave blacks a voice (not always a diverse voice, but nevertheless it was something)
  • expanded welfare expenditures. Great Society money was limited, but it allowed blacks to exercise their rights to welfare, to ‘entitlements’. For example, in major cities, AFDC caseloads grew 30-40% in inner cities, less than 10% in other areas. People who had long been denied welfare benefits were now receiving them–the Great Society ‘unlocked’ welfare funds whose use had been restricted, even among the poor whites or other groups. In addition, two substantial entitlement programs–Medicare (old-age health insurance) and Food Stamps (food assistance)–were both created during the 1960s. This would eventually lead to movements to find new ways to restrict and limit the use of public welfare . . . in other words, the pendulum would swing back . . .
  • institutional changes (largely through legal action). As mentioned previously, legal action was more effective when it addressed blacks and welfare recipients as a class, and often times the cases that were argued were those that would push back restrictions to this class. Successful class action suits led to:
    • Repeal of residency laws
    • Repeal of man-in-the-house laws
    • ’employable mother’ rules were overturned
    • welfare agencies’ discretion to deny benefits to certain groups was severely curtailed. Some of the specific strategies addressed included:
      • arbitrary terminations
      • jailing male welfare recipients who refuse to work
      • midnight raids
      • agencies’ denial of recipients’ rights to representation
  • intense opposition
    • between local government and feds (threatening political machines, e.g., in Chicago)
    • racial tension elevated
    • to expanded welfare rolls–there was a backlash, and conservative groups would spend much of the 1970s and 80s trying to roll back the changes to the system that resulted from the Great Society programs
    • Frances Fox Piven–here is a woman who essentially traded a successful career as a researcher and theorist for a push to get the electorate–particularly what she considered the poor and disenfranchised–registered to vote. What has she received for her efforts? Well, the 2008 election saw the first African American president elected, and record turnouts among non-white voters (not that it was all her doing, of course, but she was involved in building the institutional infrastructure). But, as Claire Booth Luce once said, no good deed goes unpunished. Noted TV personality Glenn Beck discovered her and identifid her as part of his ‘tree of [liberal] revolution’ (her response).

So . . . how does this fit in with the authors’ thesis about the relationship between the economy, labor markets, disruptions and unrest, and government intervention?