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Journal of Social History 41.1 (2007) 207-208

Reviewed by
W. Andrew Achenbaum
University of Houston
The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State. By Mary Poole (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. xi 258 pp. $59.95, cloth; $22.50, paper).

This is a long overdue book: since completing my dissertation thirty years ago, I have wanted to have a full description and explanation of The Segregated Origins of Social Security. Mary Poole offers public historians, social historians, social scientists, social workers, and students of policymaking a detailed reading of primary sources by those men and women instrumental in shaping and enacting the first four programs of the 1935 Social Security Act—Grants to States for Old Age Assistance (Title I), Federal Old-Age Benefits (Title II), Grants to States for Unemployment Compensation Administration (Title III), and Grants to States for Aid to Dependent Children (Title IV).

"African Americans were not denied the benefits of Social Security because of the machinations of southern congressional leadership, as is assumed," Poole argues. "The Act was made discriminatory through a shifting web of alliances of white policymakers that crossed regional and political parties... who genuinely sought to build a fairer and better world, and devoted their waking hours to that challenge, but whose vision was steeped in racial privilege" (p. 6). Not everybody will agree with Poole's interpretation of the data, especially her emphasis on the economic value that political economists, including those taught by or who associated with John Commons, placed on "whiteness" in the first third of the 20th century. That said, no one interested in the foundations of the modern U.S. welfare state can afford to ignore her analysis.

In Poole's account there were considerable differences of opinion among the lawmakers, interest groups, administration officials, scholars recruited to draft legislative particulars, and even within FDR's inner circle, about the scope of social insurance, much less the best ways to proceed in creating programs exclusively run from Washington in addition to Federal-state partnerships. Southerners in Congress were more concerned about the differential impact that potential legislation would have on the finances of northern and southern states, industrial ones vs. agricultural ones. Breaking ranks, claims Poole, some southern Senators actually led the fight to include farm workers (mainly African American in the South) under Titles II and IV. Similarly, the three major Black and interracial organizations were disunited. And while Edith and Grace Abbott had powerful support to expand the scope of mothers' pensions under Social Security, at the last minute Harry Hopkins, director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, substituted his own plan, which subsequently was enacted into law.

At the center of the action was the disharmonious Committee on Economic Security (CES), including Frances Perkins, Hopkins, Edwin Witte, Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong, and J. Douglas Brown. Within the circle "the Wisconsin group [had] the power to define the issue of exclusion as one of 'administration,' to appropriate the issue to their own recognized field of expertise" (p. 80). In the tradition of Ely, LaFollette, and Commons, the Wisconsin contingent consisted of technicians, who prided themselves on their disinterested effort to improve the quality of life in America. "The colorblind culture of the New Deal did not [End Page 207] allow for that discrimination to be understood and addressed; it was only approached through dispassionate administrative discourse that did not recognize race as a political entity," Poole argues. "Yet the Act's framers were very conscious of racial politics. It was that consciousness that ultimately led them to advocate the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers" (p. 86).

Racism and racial politics unquestionably affected the legislative particulars of Titles I to IV of the Social Security Act. Poole ably demonstrates that lawmakers and their staff had options at their disposal that could have mitigated The Segregated Origins of Social Security. And by extending her account back to John Commons's "racialized analysis of labor" (p. 76) in the...


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