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Social Legislation


SOCIAL LEGISLATION. Laws that seek to promote the common good, generally by protecting and assisting the weaker members of society, are considered to be social legislation. Such legislation includes laws assisting the unemployed, the infirm, the disabled, and the elderly. The social welfare system consists of hundreds of state and federal programs of two general types. Some programs, including Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and Workers' Compensation, are called social insurance programs because they are designed to protect citizens against hardship due to old age, unemployment, or injury. Because people receiving benefits from these programs generally have contributed toward their benefits by paying payroll taxes during the years that they worked, these social insurance programs are usually thought of as earned rewards for work. Programs of a second type, often cumulatively called the Welfare System, provide government assistance to those already poor. These social programs have maximum income requirements and include Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the Food Stamp Program, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Insurance.

Although the United States has had social welfare legislation since colonial times, its nature and extent has changed over the years. For much of U.S. history, Americans preferred to rely on the marketplace to distribute goods and services equitably among the population. In cases where the market clearly failed to provide for categories of people such as widows, orphans, or the elderly, families were expected to take responsibility for the care of their members. When family members lacked the ability to do so, private, religious, or charitable organizations often played that role. Help from the town, county, or local government was rarely provided, and even then only in those cases where the need arose due to conditions beyond the individual's control, such as sickness, old age, mental incapacity, or widowhood.

The Nineteenth Century

For most of the nineteenth century, social problems too large for family members or private charities to handle fell under the jurisdiction of local government, consisting of the town, city, or county rather than the more distant national government. Local government's power to pass social legislation was premised upon the power of the state to restrict individual liberty and property for the common welfare. Later, while local governments remained involved, states began to assume a share of the obligation of caring for some of their citizens. Beginning in the late 1820s, a number of states founded asylums for the insane. A series of investigations by the reformer Dorothea Dix played an important role in bringing the plight of the mentally ill to the attention of state legislatures. Later in the nineteenth century, state and local governments created other specialized institutions for dependent persons, such as homes for the blind or mentally retarded.

While states and local communities had an interest in alleviating suffering in their jurisdictions, the U.S. legal system at this time limited the types of aid that could be offered. Natural-law concepts such as social Darwinism and laissez-faire economics stressed that redistributing wealth from certain citizens in the form of taxes to other citizens in the form of government payments was inherently unfair. For this reason, the Supreme Court held it constitutionally valid for a state or local government to create a poorhouse but held it unconstitutional for a state to provide stipends to its blind or other needy citizens to allow them to live independently outside an institution. Such judicial reasoning discouraged state legislatures from considering many social welfare laws.

One important exception to the nineteenth-century legal system's aversion to income redistribution took the form of government pensions granted to Union Civil War veterans. Between 1880 and 1910, the federal government devoted more than one-fourth of its expenditures to pensions for veterans and their dependents. The most important piece of benefits legislation was the Dependent Pension Act of 1890, which made pensions available to all who had served honorably in the war for ninety days or more.

The Progressive Era

As the United States became more urbanized and industrialized during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it experienced new problems caused by rapid social, economic, and cultural changes. The rise of large cities and large-scale corporate capitalism strained the ability of local communities to deal with ever-increasing numbers of impoverished citizens or those with special needs. Despite changing social circumstances, many Americans continued to espouse the traditional idea that providing public assistance would make recipient groups dependent on the government. As the size of both the immigrant population and the industrial workforce exploded in urban areas, however, a group of reformers known as Progressives began to advocate that government, rather than private charitable organizations, offered the best hope for solving society's problems. (See Progressive Movement.) Progressives lobbied for statutes to make industrial capitalism more humane. For example, the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act of 1921 was revolutionary because it provided federal funds to match state funds for establishing maternal and child health services in each state. Under the act, full and part-time doctors and public health nurses were hired by state and local public-health agencies to train mothers and midwives in prenatal and infant care and postnatal care for new mothers. Congress failed to renew the statute, however, and it expired in 1929.

The New Deal

The period of greatest activity in the realm of social legislation occurred during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The Great Depression, which began when the stock market collapsed in 1929 and continued until the late 1930s, caused widespread poverty and economic hardship. Millions of Americans lost their jobs and businesses failed. There were no effective state or federal programs to assist the many Americans who needed help. An elderly California physician named Dr. Francis E. Townsend gained great fame by proposing a system of old-age pensions to be administered by the federal government. The Roosevelt administration responded to the popular pressure for such a program, and in 1935, Congress passed the Social Security Act, the centerpiece of the U.S. scheme of social welfare.

Before the act's passage and its validation by the Supreme Court, such legislation ensuring the welfare of U.S. citizens would have been considered unconstitutional as an invasion of powers reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment. However, in Helvering v. Davis (1937) and Steward Machine Co. v. Davis (1937) the Supreme Court held that Congress had the authority to pass the act under its power to tax and spend for the general welfare of the United States. The Court countered the argument that the federal government was intruding into an area of state authority by stating that the Social Security Act was a necessary response to a nationwide problem that could not be solved without national measures.

The Social Security Act's various provisions ultimately included old-age insurance as well as disability and survivors' benefits and Medicare coverage. Under the oldage insurance provisions of the law, pensions were to be paid to workers who reached the age of sixty-five. The necessary funding for these pensions was to be raised through taxes on employers and employees rather than by general public revenues. The size of individual pensions was to reflect the amount of worker contributions so that those with higher wages received higher pensions. While assisting a great many people, the program did not provide coverage to certain groups of workers with the greatest need. These groups included agricultural and domestic workers, many of whom were black.

Title IV of the act created the program known as Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), which provided matching federal money to help states fund mothers' aid programs. In administering the program, states were given wide discretion in determining who was eligible for ADC and how much they received. The result was that one state's benefits might be five or six times the amount of another state's. In 1939, Congress passed legislation making widows with children eligible for social security benefits if their husbands had contributed to the system while working. Thus widows increasingly tended to rely on social security while ADC gradually came to support more divorced, deserted, and never-married mothers. As a result, a certain amount of stigma has attached to ADC, which unlike social security, is limited to those with low incomes.

Post–New Deal Social Legislation

A second period of great legislative activity on the social welfare front occurred between World War II and the end of the 1970s. For example, in 1944, Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights, which offered a comprehensive set of disability, employment, and educational benefits for returning veterans. Under this legislation, half of all U.S. veterans received benefits for further training or higher education. Federal disability insurance was added to the Social Security Act in 1956.

Early in his presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson put forward an ambitious agenda of social legislation termed the Great Society, which proved to be the most important expansion of the federal government in the United States since the Great Depression. Unlike the New Deal, which was a response to economic hard times, Great Society programs were passed during a time of prosperity. During the Johnson years Congress passed three major civil rights acts. The 1964 act forbade job discrimination and the segregation of public accommodations, the 1965 law guaranteed black voting rights, and a third act in 1968 banned housing discrimination.

The best-known part of the Great Society, however, was a large group of initiatives instituted between 1964 and 1967 known as the War on Poverty. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 generated a number of new programs, including Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), which was intended to operate as a domestic version of the Peace Corps and sent middle-class young people on "missions" into poor neighborhoods, and Upward Bound, which assisted poor high-school students entering college. Other programs included free legal services for the poor, Neighborhood Youth Corps, the Job Corps, and Head Start. These programs were designed to fight poverty by providing training and educational opportunities to those who otherwise might not have them. A key element of these programs was the idea of community action, or encouraging the poor to participate in designing and running the programs intended to assist them.

In 1965, Congress also added the Medicare program to the existing provisions of the Social Security Act. This provision provides funds for medical care for the nation's elderly and its benefits are available to anyone over age sixty-five, regardless of need. (In 1964, the Food Stamp Act had begun to provide food vouchers for those with minimal income.) In 1966 the government extended medical benefits to welfare recipients of all ages through the Medicaid program. (See Medicare and Medicaid.) Also during the 1960s, Congress passed legislation to provide significant federal aid to public education. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 offered financial assistance to underfunded public school districts throughout the country, while the Higher Education Act of the same year provided aid to needy college and university students.

When compared to most other countries, the extent of social welfare legislation in place in the United States is quite minimal. Nevertheless, such programs have engendered considerable controversy. In the aftermath of the Great Society, few new or significant programs have been implemented. With the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, the federal government began to attempt to cut back on welfare benefits, relying on the theory that the problem of poverty is best addressed by encouraging the growth of private industry and private-sector jobs. In 1996 President Clinton, working together with a Republican Congress, signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, or welfare reform law, which transformed the welfare system by raising recipients' work requirements and limiting the time period during which benefits are available.


Foner, Eric, and John A. Garraty, eds. The Reader's Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

LeVert, Marianne. The Welfare System: Help or Hindrance to the Poor? Brookfield, Conn.: Milbrook Press, 1995.

Muncy, Robyn. Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Polenberg, Richard. The Era of Franklin Roosevelt, 1933–1945. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Katherine M.Jones

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