Special Studies

Special Study #2:

Professor Theron Schlabach on "Rationality and Welfare"

In 1968 the Social Security Administration commissioned a study by Professor Theron Schlabach of the History Department of Goshen College. The purpose of the study was to examine the period prior to the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 to identify and trace some of the major intellectual developments in the years prior to the adoption of the Social Security program. In particular, Professor Schlabach's report focuses on one major theme from this period, the interplay between traditional personalized approaches to the problem of economic security versus the development of institutional structures designed to "rationalize" responsibility for the problem of economic security. As Professor Schlabach convincingly documents, this was a major philosophical theme within American thought for many years and was an important issue in the public policy debates leading up to the passage of the Social Security Act.

Professor Schlabach illustrates his central thesis by recounting the positions and the actions of each of the major players in the public policy debates about economic security: chartiable organizations; the social insurance movement; social workers; the medical profession; business; labor unions; and policy experts. It will be illuminating for many readers to learn what the role and positions of each of these interest groups was in the debates leading up to the Social Security Act. Especially noteworthy is the extended Bibliographic Essay Professor Schlabach provides at the end of his manuscript. This is a handy guide to the literature as it existed at the end of the 1960s.

Professor Schlabach's study was published internally within SSA in September 1969, under the title "Rationality and Welfare: Public Discussion of Poverty and Social Insurance in the United States 1875-1935." Although Professor Schlabach's study has been widely read within SSA, it has never before been published or made available to a broader audience. We are therefore very pleased to be able to make available, for the first time, the full text of Professor Schlabach's 1969 study.

photo of Schlabach

Professor Theron Schlabach, 10/18/01. SSA History Archives.

Author's Comments, 2001

After thirty-two more years of active history scholarship I still believe that the report that I made to the Social Security Administration in 1969 was a highly worthwhile contribution to scholarship. Therefore I am delighted to cooperate with the Administration's Archivist, Mr. Larry DeWitt, as he makes it available on the internet.

To be sure, the report is not quite a polished book. In the years since 1969 I have developed quite an appreciation for the contribution that editors make to books (especially because I have edited quite a few myself). Also, I surely understand the value of peer review, peer comment, peer advice. I am confident the reader will find that "Rationality and Welfare" is solid scholarship; but I also am keenly aware that it never got the full treatment from editors and peers.

The thesis of the report is that, in the six decades of U.S. public discussion about social insurance that preceded the historic Social Security Act of 1935, there were many issues and nuances but one central question. That question was whether to view dependency in highly personal terms or whether to approach the problem as an institutional one that called for large-scale systemic solutions. I can hardly claim to be an unbiased judge of my own argument. But I still do believe, quite firmly, that my thesis was valid and that the issues and evidence I discussed around that thesis offer much that is helpful for understanding the history and formation of Social Security in the United States.

At the same time, were I to rewrite the manuscript today, I would surely make some changes. Among them would be two that are quite basic. One would be to soften the dichotomy between the personal and the institutional approach. In short, were I to write today I probably would work less with how those two approaches opposed each other and more with how they can complement one another. The other is that I would do considerably more reading in organizational theory. Especially, I would refine my understanding and use of the concept of organizational "rationalization." In 1969 that concept was quite central to my analysis. It even accounts for my title. Today I would want to hone, sharpen, and test it quite a bit further.

Nonetheless, I still judge the report to be very worthwhile as it is. It is what it claims to be: an investigation into a public discussion. It makes no pretense of exploring unpublished sources in archives; but it does deliver a great amount of material which is not readily available elsewhere since much of the material is from published sources that are quite obscure. Moreover, although possibly biased, my editorial eye still finds its prose to be eminently readable.

Those features--solid research, offering relatively untapped evidence, and good communication of findings--are of course key tests of valid scholarship. I still judge that "Rationality and Welfare" meets those tests. So I am delighted to cooperate with Mr. DeWitt to make it more available.

Theron F. Schlabach
Goshen College, November 2001


"Rationality & Welfare: Public Discussion of Poverty and Social Insurance in the United States 1875-1935"

by Professor Theron Schlabach

I. COS: A False Start

II. Toward a Rationalization of Welfare

III. Social Workers: Professionalism, Reliefism, and Passivity

IV. Medical Men: Personalized Prescription for Institutional Illness

V. Businessmen: Confusion of Criteria

VI. Labor Unions: Organization with Rationalization

VII. The Experts' Two Designs


Bibliographical Essay