Studying the poor in a neoliberal age. An interview with Brooke Depenbusch.

  1. Brooke, thanks so much for spending some time with The Docket.  First, we know that you are working on a dissertation at the University of Minnesota.  Can you give our readers an overview of the project?

Of course – it’s a pleasure!  My dissertation explores the history of general relief between the New Deal and the War on Poverty.  Welfare histories generally explore the insurance and assistance programs constructed by the federal government and designed to provide for particular groups (e.g., the households of either aged industrial workers or single mothers).  The federal government, however, deliberately eschewed responsibility for general relief and, despite years of welfare-state building and economic prosperity, local officials across the country continued to retain ultimate administrative and financial responsibility for distributing assistance to the working poor.

Local officials generally understood that their primary role was not to relieve need but to minimize expenditures by keeping relief rolls small.  A discretionary toolkit of deterrent and punitive administrative practices empowered these officials to either push needy households off relief or to keep them from receiving assistance to begin with.  The settlement and removal laws are the most vivid illustration of the deterrent and dependency-minimizing impulses that drove local officials’ administration of general relief.  Local officials were obligated to provide assistance only to those persons who were “settled,” or defined as legally belonging within their local jurisdiction.  As for the “unsettled,” local officials were empowered to expel these persons and return them to the jurisdictions where they did have settlement.  In many jurisdictions, local officials denied relief to the unsettled and arranged for their expulsion as a matter of course.

The persistence of practices like removal appalled social workers, and for decades the field’s leaders fought an unrelenting battle to wrest control of general relief from local officials. Their lobbying was rebuffed and Congress repeatedly refused to place administrative and financial responsibility for general relief upon the federal government, thus ensuring its distribution would not be subject to federal supervision and standards.  Despite social workers’ ongoing frustration that general relief was a repository of “everything that is reactionary in the field of social welfare,” in the name of minimizing costs and the preservation of social order local officials across the country were left with exceptional discretionary power to administer general relief so as to deter and punish public dependency.

  1. The moral critique of the poor’s dependence, and the idea that this diminished their citizenship–some of the same language is getting thrown around state legislatures today.  Do you see some of these issues persisting into the present?  Or is this a case of the meaning of some of the same terms changing over the years?

This is a fascinating question.  There are historians and social theorists who argue that the dismantling of the federal welfare state and the devolution of responsibility to the states and localities is the consequence of a “return” to the parochial and punitive tradition in American social provision. In general relief, the parochial and punitive tradition always predominated.  I would suggest, then, that our post-welfare state might be understood as an amplification and mass diffusion of arrangements that had particularly characterized the administration of general relief.  In other words, I do think that the history of general relief especially highlights the persistence of a social and legal tradition that normalized and, in fact, prescribed the preservation of social order through the degradation of the economically marginal.

  1. A project with such a broad scope and wide-ranging argument must require a great deal of archival research.  Can you walk our readers through some of the archives where you’ve worked?  Do you have a particular favorite?

Absolutely!  General relief was administered under the purview of 10,000 governmental units, which means that there’s no such thing as a central archive of general relief.  Fortunately, the range of parties interested in the administration of general relief left an extensive paper trail.  The archive I’ve assembled brings together the contemporary research and advocacy materials produced by social work leaders and national organizations, congressional commissions, taxpayers’ organizations, state departments of welfare, and local officials. I’m especially beholden to contemporary students of social work and law who produced a substantial body of theses and dissertations that gave in-depth examination to the administration of general relief in their communities and around the country.

While I also draw on appellate court cases and attorneys general opinions to illustrate the national dimensions of the administration of the settlement and removal laws, the most powerful set of sources that I work with is a series of casefiles held at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Each time a presumptively “unsettled” family applied for relief the result was a lengthy chain of correspondence between local officials in Wisconsin and their counterparts across the country.  Back and forth contests over one other’s interpretation of the settlement laws, these paper trails provide incredible insight into the process by which lay officials attempted to breathe meaning into and harness the settlement and removal laws to their ends.

  1. You’ve won prestigious awards, such as a Hurst Summer Institute Fellowship.  But the intellectual home for your project is the University of Minnesota History Department.  How has working with the department’s faculty shaped your work and your dissertation?

I’ve been co-advised by Barbara Welke and Tracey Deutsch and their influence on my work is indelible.  Tracey Deutsch’s understanding of the interplay between work and gender in the history of American capitalism has had a profound impact on how I have come to understand the social relationships implicated and upheld in the administration of public assistance.  Barbara Welke’s research is well known to legal historians and her passion and insight have had a tremendous impact on my own exploration of law’s role in constituting borders of belonging.  The masterful instructing and advising of Susanna Blumenthal continues to shape and constructively challenge my understanding of the field of legal history.  The department’s commitment to comparative, interdisciplinary, and engaged scholarship has been a source of great intellectual stimulation and inspiration.

  1. We’re a legal history journal, so we have to ask: what is your favorite classic work of legal history?  Bonus points, of course, if it is an article from Law and History Review.  But if not, that’s ok, too.

It’s a challenge to choose just one work, but I think a great deal about the questions raised in Christopher Tomlins’s recent classic, “What Is Left of the Law and Society Paradigm after Critique? Revisiting Gordon’s ‘Critical Legal Histories’.” I’m compelled by the prospect of a post-critical scholarship that reckons with the indeterminate aspects of law but cultivates the construction of narrative that, as Tomlins points out, might be precious to the powerless.

Brooke Depenbusch is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Minnesota and an Associate Blogger at Legal History Blog