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Comparisons with other programs

After reflecting upon this account of workers’ compensation, some readers may wonder why mothers’ pensions were not excluded from the CES report and the Social Security Act as well. After all, by 1935 mothers’ pensions laws were just as widespread and old as workers’ compensation laws. Both programs, according to the CES (1935), were plagued by inadequate benefits and unreasonable variations in eligibility and benefits from state to state. If states were already doing something about poor children, and the program was beset with problems, why not move on to programs with less of a foothold and less operational baggage?

Prevailing images of deservingness help to explain the differences. Policy makers tended to divide the needy population into those who could be expected to work and those who could not. The poor children of single mothers were easily assigned to the latter group, but injured workers were harder to place. Depending on the severity of their injury, they might or might not be able to work, and those who could work might not be able to perform their old job. Injured workers might need temporary help, like the unemployed, or they might require long-term relief like the blind, the elderly, and children. Needing to move quickly, policy makers focused on those needy citizens who were easiest to categorize.

The CES also had evidence that the Depression was taking a heavy toll on poor single mothers and their children. Unlike means-tested old age pensions, which spread rapidly in the states between 1929 and 1933, the scope of mothers’ pensions diminished as cash-strapped cities and counties opted out of the program. Mothers’ pensions had been discontinued entirely in Arkansas, Mississippi, and New Mexico by 1934. Fewer than 10% of the counties in several other states participated. To ration scarce resources, some localities made one-child families ineligible for mothers’ pensions. Virtually no local government could afford to provide aid for all families who qualified. As a result, most families eligible for mothers’ pensions were receiving emergency relief instead. According to the CES (1937: 238-41), while 109,000 single mothers with 280,000 children were receiving mothers’ pensions in 1934, 358,000 single mothers with 719,000 children were on the relief rolls. The CES had no comparable figures for injured workers and their families, and thus no way to judge how much unmet need existed for workers’ compensation.

One reason for this disparity in information is that mothers’ pensions had a stronger institutional presence in Washington than did workers’ compensation. The U.S. Children’s Bureau, created in 1912, was a crucial source of information about a whole range of issues affecting women and children in the early 20th century. Though more involved with maternal and infant health and child labor, the Children’s Bureau did conduct a series of studies about mothers’ pensions in the 1920s and early 1930s. These studies not only described the scope of existing laws, but evaluated their adequacy and documented cases of


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