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  • Bold Relief: Institutional Politics and the Origins of Modern American Social Policy
  • W. Andrew Achenbaum
Bold Relief: Institutional Politics and the Origins of Modern American Social Policy. By Edwin Amenta (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. xiii plus 343 pp. $19.95).


Three decades ago, when I plunged into graduate studies, one of the more tantalizing promises made by advocates of the so-called “new” social history was the opportunity to use robust social-science theories to inform investigations of classic historiographic problems. In Bold Relief: Institutional Politics and the Origins of Modern American Social Policy, sociologist Edwin Amenta incorporates theories from sociology and political science to put into historical context the origins and immediate consequences of key features of New Deal social legislation. “An incipient work and relief state,” Amenta argues, “U.S. social policy centered on means-tested work programs, mainly for able-bodied men, and federal-state public assistance programs for special categories of Americans, deserving of aid, but presumed to be of limited economic usefulness” (119—120).

Two theories, according to Amenta, shape academic thinking about the evolution of modern U.S. social policy. “The social democratic thesis” emphasizes certain political actors—such as centralized labor unions—that promote extensive redistributive social spending. “Institutional, or state-centered arguments,” in contrast, posit that states with significant bureaucracies and great financial capacities tend to encourage social spending, whereas countries with fragmented, hobbled political processes typically are niggardly. Bold Relief opts for middle-range theory-building. Focussing on tax measures as well as social insurance, Amenta analyzes the timing, agenda, policy content, and administration of “legislation creating new commitments between the state and citizens” (52). He concludes that the United States became a world leader in public social spending in the Great Depression because of its work and relief programs, not the Social Security Act. Extending his time frame to 1950, Amenta questions whether the American failure to construct a work-and-relief state resulted from economic shifts due to crises like World War II or changes in New Deal spending commitments, as most social scientists hypothesize. Dividing the 1930s and 1940s into seven distinct periods, Amenta invites readers to assess with him historical data—ranging from state-level voting patterns and party realignments, to racial, gender, and regional politics—to gain a richly textured portrait of this pivotal era.

How successful is Bold Relief as a revisionist, crossdisciplinary survey? I suspect that students will find it very useful in broadening their understanding of the relationship between Federal and state initiatives, between various reform thrusts executed by state actors in the New Deal. Amenta melds social-science theories and historical trends in a clear, straightforward manner. Less successful, I imagine, will be the comparison of U.S. trends with developments in Britain. Readers are not given sufficient information about similarities and differences in transatlantic orientations toward Keynes or toward addressing the needs of working-class citizens in dire straits. Graduate students in history, political science, and sociology, however, will find the paperback edition of Amenta’s book useful in preparing 20thcentury fields.

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W. Andrew Achenbaum
University of Houston

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