Saturday, August 20, 2016

Katznelson Is Successful and Wrong (in Part)

Ira Katznelson has succeeded in convincing the conventional wisdom that FDR worked with Southern racists to limit the scope of New Deal legislation so that blacks were not aided.  While that's a smal part of his most recent book, "Fear Itself" , it seems to be the meme which has most resonated with liberals.

Given the scope of the New Deal, you'd have to examine many legislative histories to confirm or dispute the general thesis.  I don't know the truth of others, but I do not believe it is an accurate description of the reasons for circumscribing the coverage of Social Security in the original act.  Katznelson.  I've noted this before in a Post Wonkblog discussion of the book, by point to:
an interesting counterpoint by Larry DeWitt, a public historian with the Social Security Administration. Here's the abstract:
The author concludes that the racial-bias thesis is both conceptually flawed and unsupported by the existing empirical evidence. The exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from the early program was due to considerations of administrative feasibility involving tax-collection procedures. The author finds no evidence of any other policy motive involving racial bias.
I'd add to DeWitt's work by pointing to the expansion of SS coverage to farmers. (See this IRS publication.)  It's personal to me, because I remember my parents becoming eligible in 1950 (from an SSA history):
The amendments of 1950 brought 9 million workers into covered employment (Christgau 1960), including regularly employed farm and domestic workers and, with some exceptions, self-employed persons. These new workers would generally not have much in the way of covered earnings from 1937 to 1950. Except for those just beginning their careers, newly covered workers would thus receive low retirement benefits. A "new start" formula was instituted that allowed the computation of benefits on the basis of average monthly wages after 1950 (if that yielded higher benefits). Similar to the 1939 amendments, this policy reflected a choice by policymakers to award adequate retirement benefits to persons who may have worked (and paid taxes) in covered employment for only a short period of time.
 I'm reminded of this point because among the family papers I just inherited was correspondence concerning the difficulty of establishing my father's birth date (in 1889) to become eligible for SS. The bottom line was that SSA had become a functioning bureaucracy which was capable of handling the extra covered workers, and IRS was capable of writing IRS pub 51.  And the resistance of the farm lobbies, like the American Farm Bureau, had been overcome.  (See this NYTimes article on the differing attitudes of Farm Bureau and National Grange.) This expansion was passed enough though Southern Democrats retained their power in Congress.

While the evidence is clear to me, I'm not holding my breath as I wait for academic historians to recognize this error.

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