Abstract: Foregrounding the Freedmen's Bureau: A Heterodox Rendering of the U.S. Welfare State Origin Story (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Foregrounding the Freedmen's Bureau: A Heterodox Rendering of the U.S. Welfare State Origin Story

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Joshua Gregory, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of California, Berkeley, CA
Background and Purpose: The Freedmen’s Bureau was, technically speaking, the first U.S. national welfare institution. However, nearly all accounts that comprise the canon of U.S. welfare state history locate the origin of our welfare state in the 1930s New Deal Era, typically at the passage of the 1935 Social Security Act. This elision raises two research questions bearing crucial importance to the understanding of social work as a historically situated profession and to contemporary social work praxis: 1) what empirical links exist between the Freedmen’s Bureau and later formations of the welfare state, and 2) what conceptual and theoretical insights result from reconceiving the welfare state as beginning with the Freedmen’s Bureau?

Methods: This study utilizes three qualitative methods: historical review, archival methods, and theory construction. The first consists of utilizing secondary literature to motivate and contextualize the present study. The second employs exploratory analysis of primary archival sources from the Freedmen’s Bureau Digital Collection, an archive available through the Smithsonian Institution; and the Oliver Otis Howard Papers, which are housed at Bowdoin College. The third refers to theorization that departs from, but is not restricted to, the empirical evidence generated by the two preceding methodological steps—theorization that challenges not only the orthodox narrative that the U.S. welfare state originated in the 1930s, but the very terms of that narrative, which themselves derive from and condition the hegemony of Western colonial epistemology and historiography.

Results: The secondary literature and archival resources suggest direct pathways from the Freedmen’s Bureau to later formations of the welfare state. Two primary examples of such pathways include precedents set regarding labor contracts between freedpeople and planters (prefiguring the “workfare” ideology) and forced or incentivized marriages among freedpeople (anticipating the linkage of legal marriage with access to rights and benefits), both serving as coercive mechanisms of racial control deployed under the guise of social welfare. This evidence justifies theorizing broader conclusions and implications of reconceiving the U.S. welfare state as beginning with the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Conclusions and Implications: If the inception of the welfare state is marked by the emergence of the first national institution designed to address the most pressing collective social and material crises facing the nation, and the Freedmen’s Bureau was precisely that, then the period between the discontinuation of the Freedmen’s Bureau (1872) and the passage of the Social Security Act (1935) was not an empty historical moment devoid of or antecedent to the formation of the welfare state, but an active, albeit latent, developmental moment foundationally constitutive of the welfare state as it would eventually come to exist in more permanent form. The implication is that during this time the U.S. eschewed a true welfare state—a welfare state that would have squarely addressed the most pressing collective social and material crises facing the nation (i.e., Reconstruction and reparations for slavery)—and moved toward a symbolic welfare state, which erased historical and contemporaneous racial inequity by building a welfare state on a platform of meritocracy incompatible with the enduring legacy of chattel slavery.