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In conversations about government assistance, rights language often emerges as a danger: when benefits become “rights,” policymakers lose flexibility, taxpayers suffer, and the poor lose their incentive to work. Absent from the discussion is an understanding of how, when, and why Americans began to talk about public benefits in rights terms. This Article addresses that lacuna by examining the rise of a vibrant language of rights within the federal social welfare bureaucracy during the 1930s and 1940s. This language is barely visible in judicial and legislative records, the traditional source base for legal-historical inquiry, but amply evidenced by previously unmined administrative records. Using these documents, this Article shows how concepts of “welfare rights” filtered through federal, state, and local administrative channels and into communities around the nation.

This finding contradicts conventional wisdom, which dates the birth of “welfare rights” language to the 1960s. This Article reveals that as early as 1935, some Americans—government officials, no less—deliberately and persistently employed rights language in communications about welfare benefits. In addition to challenging dominant interpretations, this Article identifies an under-studied aspect of rights language. An abundant “rights talk” literature chronicles and critiques claimants’ use of rights language. This Article, by contrast, identifies rights language emanating from government and being used for government purposes. Specifically, this Article argues that federal administrators used rights language as an administrative tool, a way to solve tricky problems of federalism and administrative capacity at a time in which poor relief was shifting from a local to a state and federal responsibility. Thus, this Article not only enriches debates about the role of rights in contemporary social welfare reforms, but also brings fresh insights to scholarship on the techniques of administrators and the limits of federal power.


legal history, U.S. history, cooperative federalism, rights language, welfare, Social Security Act, public benefits, New Deal, administrative state, welfare rights, poverty law

Publication Title

Yale Law Journal

Publication Citation

122 Yale L. J. 314 (2012)