Studies in American Political Development

Bring Back the WPA: Work, Relief, and the Origins of American Social Policy in Welfare Reform 9

a1 New York University


When people think of the origins of American social policy, they usually think of the 1935 Social Security Act, part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's second New Deal. That legislation created both old-age insurance, now commonly known as social security, and Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), recently known as welfare. Though central to today's social policy, these programs were somewhat marginal to New Deal social policy because they dealt with special categories of “unemployable” citizens. The key concern of New Deal social policymakers was instead with those deemed “employable,” and their problems were addressed mainly by another and much less studied program from the second New Deal: the “Works Program” operated mainly by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The lack of attention to the WPA has had important consequences for understandings of American social policy.


9 An early version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, New York, 1996, a nd another version at the Social Science History Association, New Orleans, 1996. For comments and criticism we thank Alexander M. Hicks, Kim Voss, Elizabeth Sanders; Andrew J. Polsky, Ira Katznelson, Joseph Luders, Richard Flanagan, and other members of t he 1996–1997 New York Colloquium on American Political Development, City University of New York, the Studies in American Political Development editors, and an anonymous reader.