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  • States of Dependency: Welfare Rights and American Governance, 1935–1972 by Karen Tani
  • Annelise Orleck
States of Dependency: Welfare Rights and American Governance, 1935–1972. By Karen Tani (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2016) 427pp. $99.00 cloth $39.99 paper

Most scholars of U.S. poverty policy cite the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law as the engine driving a dramatic expansion in the rights of America’s poorest families to receive federally funded aid. Founded in 1965 by Ed Sparer, a Communist Party activist and garment union lawyer turned “welfare law guru,” the Center crafted a litigation strategy that assisted poverty lawyers across the United States in mounting cases intended to overturn state laws limiting poor people’s rights to public assistance. Between 1965 and 1970 they went a long way, though definitely not all the way, toward achieving that goal.

In three short years, Sparer and his legion of poverty lawyers won three famous U.S. Supreme Court victories—King v. Smith (1968), Shapiro v. Thompson (1969), and Goldberg v. Kelly (1970)—that established poor people’s right to welfare as an entitlement of American citizenship. King v. Smith overturned “substitute father” rules that allowed states to refuse aid to any woman found with evidence of a “man in the house,” [End Page 107] even if he was not her children’s father. In Shapiro v. Thompson, the Court overturned residency requirements mandating that a mother live in a state for a certain length of time before she could apply for government aid. Finally, in Goldberg v. Kelly, the Court ruled that welfare benefits were to be seen more as “property” than as a “gratuity” and that those benefits could not be terminated without due process, via a fair hearing. These decisions, coming in rapid succession, seemed radically to reframe American welfare law and popular understandings of public assistance, transforming poor mothers and children from wards of the state to rights-bearing citizens.

In States of Dependency, a profound and richly detailed reflection on the evolution of the right to government aid in the mid-twentieth-century United States, Tani, acknowledges the importance of Sparer and the Center. She argues, however, that, procedurally as well as intellectually, the idea of welfare as a right can be traced back to the New Deal and to the social workers, lawyers, politicians, and intellectuals who shaped the powerful central state to which it gave rise. The argument is persuasive, but she does not stop there—far from it.

Tani shows that the elaboration and cementing of welfare rights began in the 1930s and continued into the 1970s, propelled not only through activism like Sparer’s but also through myriad interactions between federal, state, and local administrators; social workers and recipients; and what she calls the “legalization of American poor relief” (8). With this phrase she is referring to the lawyers who represented aid recipients making claims through the courts, as well as to the legal battles in which state administrators challenged federal welfare regulations that they did not wish to honor.

Through these exchanges, Tani argues, the original titles of the Social Security Act, on which our national system of aid to the poor is based, were repeatedly interpreted and re-interpreted. In her words, federal laws spawned “hundreds of state public assistance laws, and thousands of federal and state administrative regulations” (20). Only by paying close attention to these incremental changes—and to the ever-shifting power struggles that they sparked between local, state, and federal welfare officials; between lawyers, politicians, and social workers; and between the poor and everyone who wielded power over them—can we understand the long history of welfare rights.

Tani’s approach teaches about more than welfare rights. It offers new insights into the history of the national government and its relationships to state, city, and local governments. The concept of “dependency” is pertinent on many levels—not just the much-vilified dependency of poor mothers receiving aid in the form of cash and food but also the increasing dependency of state administrators on federal monies and of local governments on assistance from state and federal coffers.

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