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The Welfare State's Secret Weapon

Publication Date: 
December 03, 2012
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Christopher Shea

Professor Michele Dauber's book "The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origings of the American Welfare State" is mentioned in this Chronicle of Higher Education article by Christopher Shea  which discusses how comments made by presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on disaster relief may have doomed his chances of becoming president following Hurricane Sandy. 

The poll-trackers say Mitt Romney was doomed in any case, but some Republicans have blamed Hurricane Sandy. As parts of Queens, N.Y., and the Jersey Shore burned or were washed out to sea, Mr. Romney found himself in the position of having to explain some past comments about the worthiness of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In June 2011 he had said on CNN, "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."

But in the wake of the October storm, no one was in the mood to talk about privatization or "austerity" in the context of disaster relief. That one-time fierce critic of President Obama, New Jersey's governor, Chris Christie, greeted the president warmly and toured devastated regions with him. And in November, Mr. Christie said New Jersey would seek $29.4-billion in federal disaster aid.

The episode underscored one thesis of a new book by the Stanford law professor and sociologist Michele Landis Dauber, The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State (University of Chicago Press). Despite the American enthusiasm for laissez-faire economics and reputation for flinty individualism, Ms. Dauber said in a recent interview, disaster relief, "when we are talking about individuals blamelessly stricken, has been popular with every section of the country, and among every population, literally from the beginning of the Republic."


And the logic of disaster relief steadily expanded, like a river opening into a delta, Ms. Dauber suggests: Assistance to victims of fires and floods was cited during debates over whether to extend financing for the Freedmen's Bureau, which helped emancipated slaves after the Civil War; by advocates of national spending on education during the 1880s; and by populists who called for federal relief during the depression that began in 1893.

In what is perhaps her most revisionist argument, Ms. Dauber writes that, by the Great Depression, in the 1930s, the notion that victims of economic calamities were morally comparable to victims of "acts of God" had taken hold to the point that the Supreme Court was far more receptive to large-scale social programs than has generally been thought. While the justices remained skeptical of what they viewed as regulation of local matters, they were not inclined to second-guess what fell under the rubric of "the general welfare."


In Ms. Dauber's view, then, New Deal programs like Social Security required less of a break from the past than most people think—the New Deal has been called a "third American revolution"—and the Supreme Court was not the bulwark against progressive change that some have described. Floods and fires had cleared the way for old-age pensions.


One of several developments was the rise of photojournalism and wire services, Ms. Dauber argues. Photojournalists like Dorothea Lange took pains to portray the Depression's victims as victims, capturing few angry faces or picket lines but lots of strong-boned women stoically attending to their children.


Ms. Dauber responds that people like Mr. Epstein are describing the world as they wish it were, not as it is. In the Social Security cases from 1937, she sees striking parallels with the Supreme Court's 2012 health-care decision, in which the provision that would punish states that refused to expand Medicaid's reach by withholding all Medicaid dollars was struck down—on the basis that that approach was too coercive—while the controversial "individual mandate" was upheld, on the basis of the taxing-and-general-welfare clause.

"Ironically, by deciding the case the way they did, the court may have teed up a reinvigorated general-welfare clause," Ms. Dauber says. Indeed, even some legal scholars who questioned the individual mandate said a single-payer health-care program would pass constitutional muster. "So let's get on with it," she says.