Half a Loaf: Generosity in Cash Assistance to Single Mothers across US States, 1911-1996
AuthorNicoli, Lisa Thiebaud
Aid to Families with Dependent Children
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractPrior to the establishment of Aid to Dependent Children in 1935, states offered cash assistance to single mothers and their children through locally administered programs known as mothers' pensions. Since the first mothers' pension law was passed in 1911, the rank-ordering of states' generosity has been remarkably stable, shifting only after welfare reform in 1996. Prior research has neither documented nor explained this remarkable path dependence. In this dissertation, I argue that states' racial and ethnic composition and their state capacity, as measured in the 1930s before the federalization of cash assistance to single mothers, set states on particular trajectories. To see how this operated in practice, I conducted a case study of benefit levels in Massachusetts from 1913 to 1996. I found that a constellation of factors at the beginning of mothers' pensions--the lack of a legislated maximum benefit level, state involvement in funding, and a competent professional bureaucracy--set Massachusetts on a trajectory toward being a generous state. The early years of Aid of Dependent Children reinforced this trajectory, as benefit levels were consistently raised due to cost-of-living increases. Things began to change in the 1960s, however, as the caseload grew, the state experienced a fiscal crisis, and welfare rights activists campaigned for higher benefit levels. Welfare rights activism generated a backlash that resulted in a lack of public support for adequate benefit levels. Benefit levels declined until the early 1980s, when a strong economy, savvy advocates, and sympathetic elected officials combined to increase benefit levels. The early 1990s recession, which began in 1988 in Massachusetts, instigated another decrease in benefit levels. Ultimately, the case study showed that states may appear to have solid trajectories, but these trajectories are contested. Both raising and lowering benefit levels came up in the Massachusetts Legislature many times, and a fundamental change in Massachusetts' state capacity, such as permanently reduced fiscal resources, could have sent Massachusetts down a different path.
Degree ProgramGraduate College