The Age of Extreme(s): Age, Public Health, and the Postwar U.S. Welfare State, 1945–80
The American welfare state has frequently been the subject of searching critical analyses, most frequently through the lens of race, gender, or class dynamics. However, the role of age in shaping social welfare policy – whether young, old, or somewhere in between – has been less frequently utilized by scholars. This panel seeks to address this historiographical gap by examining the historical interaction between a variety of age groups and the welfare state, with special emphasis placed on the postwar period. In particular, we will explore several ways in which changing population demographics caused by the postwar baby boom and a contemporaneous increase in life expectancy created new demands for ensuring the general welfare and informed new public policy responses.
Given the roundtable format of this panel, each panelist's paper will seek to offer new possible directions for charting the history of different age groups in American society. Lana Povitz's paper investigates the fight waged by poor Puerto Rican and African-American women in New York City to secure free summer meals for needy youth during the early 1970s in light of a changing discourse about what it meant to receive government assistance. Jenna Healey's paper asks why teenage mothers became compelling figures for policymakers and public discourse about federal intervention during the late 1970s because of their potential to represent a possible future generation of "welfare queens." Vanessa Burrow's paper explores how with the support of several large NIH grants, Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye developed a new diagnosis uniquely suited to the changing postwar patient demographics and medical marketplace. Specifically, this new diagnosis resulted in a larger proportion of older Americans being medicalized as victims of "stress" rather an eradication of chronic disease, as it had been its original intention. Finally, Ben Hellwege's paper examines the unsuccessful attempts by federal policymakers in the early 1960s to address the issue of age discrimination against older workers, and how those earlier attempts helped to shape the trajectory of Great Society initiatives aimed towards older Americans more generally.
In keeping with the AHA 2015 meeting theme of “History and the Other Disciplines,” this panel will draw upon the collected wisdom and expertise of scholarship such as public health, education, social work, and political science to lend insights into this historically complex relationship, and should be of interest to both novice and experienced scholars in these disciplines as well as historians of the United States and the welfare state more broadly conceptualized.