Means-Testing Is the Foe of Freedom

After Emancipation, black people fought for public benefits like pensions that would make their newly won citizenship meaningful. They instinctively realized something that we should today: universal social programs are the foundation of freedom.

Unidentified African-American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters, circa 1863–1865. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Joe Biden’s promise to wage a so-called second war on poverty met yet another setback last month when the federal government clawed back food stipends for low-income Americans. Expanded SNAP benefits, enacted as part of the first COVID relief bill in March 2020, had been widely popular. They were effective, too, keeping over four million people out of poverty and slashing child poverty rates by an estimated 14 percent. Their termination sent millions of Americans off the “hunger cliff,” all while food prices and food production profits soar.

Like the end of enhanced unemployment benefits and the Child Tax Credit (a credit which had cut child poverty in half), the food stipend rollback exposes the vulnerabilities of welfare programs as provisional or stopgap measures. It also highlights our woeful political choice between two parties fundamentally hostile to the welfare state: one that opposes seemingly any direct benefit to working people, and another committed to a version of public relief so technocratic that it threatens to render any social program both ineffective and politically unpopular.

This impasse has a history. A long one. In detailing the US government’s first large-scale experiments in public welfare after the Civil War, Dale Kretz’s Administering Freedom: The State of Emancipation After the Freedmen’s Bureau shows how dreams for a more comprehensive welfare state were supplanted by temporary and qualified entitlements. The result is an engrossing work of historical scholarship and an affirmation of universal social programs.

The Band-Aid Bureau

Administering Freedom begins where most histories of freedpeople’s state-centered politics leave off — with the decline of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which facilitated the transition from a slave to wage-labor economy by acting as an intermediary between planters and former slaves. Created in March 1865, the bureau negotiated labor contracts, managed abandoned and confiscated lands, and oversaw health care, education, and food rationing.

Administering Freedom by Dale Kretz (University of North Carolina Press)

Less interested in “what freedom meant” to former slaves than in how freedom was made meaningful, Kretz argues that because paper rights depended on the federal state’s willingness to recognize them and capacity to enforce them, strivings for freedom were intimately bound to state policy. Formerly enslaved people therefore felt freest in proximity to the Freedmen’s Bureau and the US Army, and they went about shaping those institutions while also imagining a new type of central state that could cultivate greater egalitarianism.

Yet, designed as a temporary agency, the Freedmen’s Bureau was “foredoomed to failure,” as W. E. B. Du Bois later bemoaned. The simultaneous closure of its Land Division and expansion of its Claims Division in 1866 signaled the government’s about-face on its promise of “Forty Acres and a Mule.” Chronically underfunded, stripped of its capacity to redistribute land, and attacked by bipartisan opponents in both the North and South, the bureau was shuttered by Congress in 1872. Its demobilization — alongside that of the US Army in the South (in favor of corporate-imperial projects in the West) — immediately pushed freedpeople into a nightmarish world of white supremacist violence, disease, unemployment, hyper-exploitation, and poverty.

Lost Cause reactionaries have long demonized the Freedmen’s Bureau as an unwanted agent of black citizenship and an activist federal government. Neo-abolitionist scholars have also criticized the bureau, albeit for its limitations and paternalism. But, as Kretz points out, ignoring the bureau’s afterlives — how freedpeople continued to view a comprehensive welfare state as both a matter of justice and integral to their newly won citizenship — misses a vital part of the story of emancipation.

The Origins of Means-Testing

With the demise of Reconstruction, African Americans shifted from federal allies to federal claimants. The grossly understudied Freedmen’s Branch, established in 1872, continued the bureau’s work of settling bounties and shifted the welfare system from “a potential vehicle to deliver collective justice” toward handling freedpeoples’ petitions for back pay, unpaid enlistment bounties, and federal pensions.

Navigating a new, more constricted bureaucracy required black families to marshal an incredible amount of evidence and testimony in support of their claims, often in collaboration with other soldiers, families, and communities. Kretz calls this mobilization to secure military benefits “the most underappreciated achievement” of the Reconstruction era.

First Sergeant Luther Hubbard of Co. C, 26th US Colored Troops Infantry Regiment, 1863. (Sam A. Cooley, Tenth Army Corps / Library of Congress)

But freedpeoples’ vestigial connection to federal power was hard and often humiliating. Postwar entitlements were “inherently exclusionary, conceived and defended as a deliberate rejection of egalitarian programs based in social citizenship.” Unreasonable burdens of proof and credibility fell disproportionately on freedwomen: widows, mothers, and daughters. In callous, routinized medical examinations, formerly enslaved people were often forced to recount the horrors they’d experienced in front of racist physicians and former enslavers. This bureaucratic hoop-jumping “set a precedent for federal endeavors in welfare that were at once invasive in their means and limited in their benefits, an insidious way to discourage participation.”

The struggle for federal pensions required even more of black claimants. With the demise of the Freedmen’s Branch in 1879, the pension claims of freedpeople flowed exclusively through the US Pension Bureau. The agency, however, relied on a byzantine system of procedural divisions, special investigators and examiners, and obstacles of documentation, legibility, and physical mobility, as “health” became synonymous with the ability to perform manual labor. Semi-privatized and corrupt examining boards didn’t merely diagnose disability; they also quantified and commodified it by speculating “how much an impairment inhibited one’s theoretical wage-earning potential.” Thousands of outsourced physicians assigned inconsistent proportional disability ratings that deemed certain claimants as “worthy” and others as “lazy” or fraudulent. Although the Dependent and Disability Pension Act of 1890 streamlined the claims process, the Pension Bureau would “always be more concerned about nefarious individuals bluffing their way into a pension than they were about crooked agencies cheating Black pensioners en masse.”

Nor did racial representation solve the bureau’s ills. Although the integrated and statutorily race-neutral Pension Bureau elevated a black professional class of aspiring clerks, accountants, attorneys, and physicians, black employment in the bureau did not wipe out the glaring racial disparities. In fact, many of these respectability-minded African Americans, by virtue of their class position, regularly pooh-poohed calls for broader redistributive measures in favor of more “realistic” solutions.

Pensions for All

Still, by the 1890s, tens of thousands of black Southerners had forged a massive grassroots movement in support of “pensions for all,” regardless of military service and as restitution for their uncompensated status as former slaves. In that sense, the slave-pension movement was a case for reparations. But it was also a class struggle that dovetailed with various blossoming social democratic impulses, including the biracial populist insurgency and the movement among ex-Confederates and their heirs to be added to federal pension rolls. As such, those who attacked the slave-pension movement correctly saw their efforts as part of a broader assault on labor organizing.

Race and region proved powerful wedges in fragmenting potential class alliances. Whites who backed ex-slave pensions — either out of a sense of justice or a clear-eyed understanding of the need to mobilize across races to expand the welfare state — were charged with “race treason.” The slave-pension movement never materialized into a coherent collective program for old age pensions, let alone a Rainbow Coalition for economic and racial justice.

But as Kretz nears the end of his narrative, he makes clear that black Americans did not simply “turn inward” at the dawn of Jim Crow. While much scholarly attention has focused on black institution building, labor organizing, and the growth of the black press in these years from the late 1800s to the New Deal, Kretz uncovers new forms of political engagement. Through claims-making, freedpeople and their families doggedly issued demands on the federal government and agitated against the administrative diminution of freedom.

The passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 should have been a triumphant culmination of this long struggle for federal assistance. It was indeed a major victory of the workers’ movement. But by barring agricultural and domestic workers who comprised roughly half of the US labor force, it too proved overly restrictive.

In the end, the federal administrators, white Southern elites, corporatist Republicans, Grand Army of the Republic veterans, and even black professionals who stymied far-reaching freedom claims didn’t merely oppose a particular set of policies. They opposed all forms of working-class solidarity in favor of individual, contractual relationships with the liberal state. This individualization — central to justifying and maintaining inequality under capitalism — was key to undercutting “more ambitious, equitable, and humane visions of land and wealth redistribution.” And federal pensions given to highly scrutinized persons, rather than mobilized collectives, proved “but proverbial crumbs, a sop to more radical promises.”

The Power of Universalism

Kretz’s superb history of how the shared radical hopes of land, homes, and pensions for all were pared down to intrusive, technocratic enterprises of staggering complexity speaks directly to the enduring problems of means-tested federal relief. In fact, Administering Freedom can be read as an endorsement of universalist welfare policies, contra the “bewilderingly convoluted, decentralized, privatized, and means-tested” politics of incrementalism.

In addition to serving more people, universal programs are easier to understand and administer. As Kretz suggests, they also “communicate an unmistakable message about the value of workers and the centrality of labor to citizenship.” Time and again, technical design details and labyrinthine application procedures — carried out by legions of “neutral” clerks, experts, supervisors, and investigators, each possessing their own assumptions and prejudices — have foiled the common pursuit of justice. Time and again, the exclusion of one group has necessarily accompanied the exclusion of others. And narrowing the eligibility band erodes popular support for public programs — meaning that even meager relief is constantly besieged, subject to the whims of the next election cycle, the next legislature, or, in our case, the next COVID emergency relief extension.

This is not to say — and Kretz does not — that universalist politics should never be tailored to specific groups, statuses, or regions. Universalism does not mean that every person’s needs are identical. Rather, “targeted universalism” can combine common programs and a mass expansion of the public sphere (Medicare for All, free college, free housing, free childcare, etc.) with customized policy based on race, gender, disability, region, immigration status, and carceral effects. In fact, universal policies have far more potential to reduce racial and gender wealth gaps than liberal, semi-privatized equity initiatives.

It’s no coincidence, then, that racism, suspicion toward public welfare, and opposition to universalist policies have historically gone hand in hand. Selectivity based on herculean burdens of proof invited prejudices, and benefits predicated on intricate substantiation, Kretz writes, “encouraged the stigmatization of its recipients as unworthy or fraudulent.”

From Reconstruction opponents who favored the “healing power” of wage labor to anti–New Dealers who feared that expanded public relief would undermine worker dependency, and from Reagan’s “welfare queens” to Obama’s vilification of “hand-outs,” means-testers have sought to defang radical redistributive demands while reinforcing social hierarchies.

Finishing the Revolution

Ultimately, Kretz details how a stateless people became citizens, and how those citizens lodged demands on the state, even as their formal tool kit — and the opportunity to make freedom tangible — became more barren. In doing so, he proposes that the promise of Emancipation was not simply crushed by white supremacist violence or scuttled by political indifference, but also “pushed through the sieve of the federal administrative state, which itself grew in large measure as a way to manage the expectations of freedpeople.” Piecemeal schemes diffused and displaced radical demands.

Administering Freedom is an exceptional piece of scholarship — a story both fascinating and largely untold. But it is not an unfamiliar story. The notion of highly conditional federal benefits serving as pale substitutes for should-be rights is sadly recognizable, as recent COVID relief contractions attest.

“Finishing” the unfinished project of Reconstruction must involve fulfilling a vision of freedom that guarantees economic rights as a basis for social citizenship.