Trapped in America's Safety Net

Trapped in America's Safety Net

One Family's Struggle

Andrea Louise Campbell

As hard-hit as the South was by the Depression—many of its states had to scale back their social assistance programs greatly—federal provision of Unemployment Insurance or mothers’ pensions posed a profound threat. These funds would provide a stream of monetary aid to black agricultural workers and domestics outside the control of the white planter elite, thereby threatening the underlying racial and class structure of the southern economy and society. 5 Southern congressmen used their dominance of key congressional committees to maintain the racial order and to reinforce state sovereignty and control. The social insurance programs of the Social Security Act of 1935—Old Age Insurance (what we think of today as “Social Security”) and Unemployment Insurance—initially covered only workers in “commerce and industry,” thus excluding occupations where African Americans were concentrated, such as farm laborers and domestics. 6 These racially discriminatory effects gradually diminished as more occupations were brought into the system. By the 1970s, Social Security in particular became a virtually “universal” program for which most retired workers were eligible, one that helped alleviate poverty in old age among the majority of income and ethnic/ racial groups.

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