Trapped in America's Safety Net

Trapped in America's Safety Net

One Family's Struggle

Andrea Louise Campbell

States have always played an important role in social assistance. 3 Before the Great Depression and World War II, which greatly expanded the size and role of the federal government, state and local governments collected far more tax revenue and were responsible for more functions than the government in Washington, DC. Indeed, a number of states had workers’ compensation programs, old-age pensions, and mothers’ pensions (which supported poor single mothers with children at home) long before the New Deal instituted programs for the aged, blind, poor, and unemployed. Because these earlier programs were entirely state run, states had a great deal of discretion over eligibility and benefits, and were loath to give up these powers to the federal government. In particular, southern states used the differential application of assistance programs to reinforce an economic system based on black agricultural labor. For example, mothers’ pensions weren’t available in counties with the highest concentrations of African Americans in order to maximize the number of available workers.

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