The Sympathetic State
81 Pages Posted: 13 Jan 2004
Date Written: January 2004
Despite nearly universal scholarly agreement on the absence of federal redistribution during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (except for Civil War pensions), the frequency and generosity of federal disaster relief appropriations actually escalated during this period. These appropriations, which included such measures as the Freedmen's Bureau and other Southern war relief, and relief of floods, fires, and earthquakes, were seen as constitutionally unproblematic and indeed mandated by prior precedent. Not surprisingly, members of Congress and other advocates for the poor pointed to disaster appropriations, albeit unsuccessfully, as a precedent for spending policy innovations. For example, Congressional Populists argued during the Depression of 1893 that unemployment relief was analogous to disaster relief. Proponents of Henry Blair's bill for federal aid to common schools in the 1880s made a similar case, also fruitlessly. Similarly, disaster relief precedents figured prominently in Supreme Court litigation, including the Sugar Bounty cases in the 1890s. The efforts by claimants in all of these instances to expand the definition of what could legitimately count as a "disaster" that could be relieved with federal funds foreshadowed the similar, though more successful, efforts by New Dealers during the 1930s on behalf of the unemployed, tenant farmers, and the elderly.
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