States of Dependency: Welfare, Rights, and American Governance, 1935-1972

Karen M. Tani

April 2016. Order online through Amazon or Cambridge University Press (ISBN: 9781107613218).

Who bears responsibility for the poor, and who may exercise the power that comes with that responsibility? Amid the Great Depression, American reformers answered this question in new ways, with profound effects on long-standing practices of governance and entrenched understandings of citizenship. States of Dependency traces New Deal welfare programs over the span of four decades, asking what happened as money, expertise, and ideas traveled from the federal administrative epicenter in Washington, DC, through state and local bureaucracies, and into diverse and divided communities.
Drawing on a wealth of previously unmined legal and archival sources, Karen Tani reveals how reformers attempted to build a more bureaucratic, centralized, and uniform public welfare system; how traditions of localism, federalism, and hostility toward the “undeserving poor” affected their efforts; and how, along the way, more and more Americans came to speak of public income support in the powerful but limiting language of law and rights. The resulting account moves beyond attacking or defending Americans’ reliance on the welfare state to explore the complex network of dependencies undergirding modern American governance.


“States of Dependency inverts the story of New Deal social benefits to provide a fresh perspective on the story of state-building. Tani explains how federal authorities relied on the language of rights to legitimize new programs, only to run afoul of local communities. This powerful book suggests how providing relief led to a stronger central government with the authority to scrutinize individual lives. I’m persuaded!”
–Alice Kessler-Harris, Columbia University

“The publication of Karen Tani’s States of Dependency marks a new beginning in the history of the American welfare state. Deftly weaving together the techniques of social welfare history, legal history, the history of the state, and the history of administration, Tani offers an entirely new perspective on the persistence of poverty and the progress of social reform from the New Deal to the 1970s, from social security to the welfare rights movement. She tells the grand story of the rise (and fall?) of the American welfare state with expert attention both to complex matters of law and administration as well as to the everyday social struggles over issues of localism, needs, rights, race, gender, and inequality that basically define this important field of inquiry. This is bold and revisionist history in the tradition of Willard Hurst, Theda Skocpol, Michael Katz, and Jerry Mashaw.”
–William Novak, University of Michigan

“In this brilliant administrative history, Karen Tani traces the remaking of poor relief from the passage of the Social Security Act to the failure of a federally guaranteed minimum income. Centering our attention on the assumption, commitments, and everyday actions of what might be thought of as the worker bees of the modern administrative state (the mid-level interpreters of statutes–here, lawyers, social workers, and other professionals who staffed the Social Security Administration and state and local level welfare offices) and the fulcrum of modern state power (federal matching grants which bound national, state, and local governments together in an uneasy embrace, a new fiscally-driven federalism), States of Dependency beautifully and powerfully captures the intricate web of dependencies, the mode of governance at the heart of the modern American state in the ‘age of statutes.'”
–Barbara Young Welke, University of Minnesota


Annelise Orleck reviewed States of Dependency for Journal of Interdisciplinary History (vol. 48, no. 1, Summer 2017). 

Peter A. Kindle reviewed States of Dependency for the Journal of Policy Practice (vol. 16, no. 4, 2017). 

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About the Author:

Karen Tani is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to joining the faculty at Berkeley, she received her JD and PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania and held prestigious fellowships at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in leading journals, including the Law and History Review and the Yale Law Journal, and has won awards from the American Society for Legal History, the Hellman Foundation, the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation, and the National Academy of Social Insurance. She coedits the Legal History Blog, the field’s leading source for news and announcements.

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