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Did Hurricane Sandy Save Obamacare?

Publication Date: 
January 14, 2013
Washington Monthly
Dan Farber

Professor Michele Landis Dauber spoke with Washington Monthly's Dan Farber about her new book "The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State" and the historical linkage between the welfare state, constitutional law and natural disasters. 

Among the notable events of 2012 were Hurricane Sandy and the Supreme Court decision upholding Obamacare. The two did not seem to have much in common. Yet, as it turns out, there is a deep historical linkage between the welfare state (in this case Obamacare), constitutional law (the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold that law), and natural disasters (Sandy). In her new book, The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State, Michele Landis Dauber, law professor and sociologist at Stanford University, does not discuss these recent events directly, but her research allows us to see some surprising connections.


The AHCA was the most notable expansion of the welfare state in decades. It was no coincidence that it relied on the congressional power to tax and spend for the general welfare. The same powers were used to justify the creation of much of the welfare state during the New Deal, with the general welfare given an equally broad definition. That much is well known. What Dauber adds, however, is evidence that the breadth of these powers was not a New Deal creation. Instead, she argues, the broad conception of the general welfare grew out of the long history of federal disaster relief, which Congress and the public had always viewed as being appropriate for preserving public health and safety. But her evidence sheds new light on how our modern welfare state and our modern views of federalism have evolved in tandem. Indeed, disaster relief provided the first seeds of the welfare state and its constitutional framework.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a relatively recent creation, but, as Dauber shows, federal disaster assistance stretches back to the early days of the Republic when Congress began to provide help for the victims of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12 and during the War of 1812. By the Civil War era, Congress had passed fifty relief bills covering everything from Mississippi River floods to the devastation of the Kansas grasshopper plague of 1874. Even fervent believers in states’ rights rarely expressed constitutional qualms about federal disaster relief. Between 1860 and 1930, there were more than ninety additional federal relief provisions, in addition to the millions expended in the South after the Civil War. From time to time, a few southerners voiced halfhearted constitutional objections that were uniformly disregarded. There was a nearly complete consensus that disaster relief fell within Congress’s power to tax and spend for the general welfare.