Toward a New Welfare History

Pimpare, Stephen

Histories of American welfare have been stories about the state. Like Walter Trattner's widely read From Poor Law to Welfare State, now in its sixth edition, they have offered a narrative about the slow but steady expansion and elaboration of state and federal protections granted to poor and working people, and have usually done so by charting increases in government expenditures, by documenting the institutionalization of welfare bureaucracies, and by tracing rises or declines in poverty, unemployment, and other aggregate measures of well-being. This has been the case even in more critical accounts that emphasize that American social welfare history is not a story just of progress, such as Michael Katz's In the Shadow of the Poorhouse. These narratives have emphasized programs, not people (whether it is the poorhouse, the asylum, and mother's pensions, or the more recent innovations of national unemployment insurance, Social Security, AFDC and TANF, and Medicare and Medicaid). In the investigations of the welfare state that dominate academic research, the content and timing of government policy itself has served as the dependent variable, while the independent variables have been a congeries of interests, institutions, and policy entrepreneurs. Our attention has been focused upon what government has done, why it was done, and what the effects were as measured in official data.

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Journal of Policy History

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Social Work
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August 10, 2012