Making Claims on the Disabled State”

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 4:10 PM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Karen Tani, Berkeley Law, University of California
This paper explores change over time in the legal significance of disability in the United States, with particular attention to the poor. It does so by interrogating a trend that has caught the attention of journalists, policymakers, and political scientists, but has yet to receive much attention from historians: the way in which disability-based social benefits ballooned in importance over the course of the twentieth century. As programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now Temporary Aid to Needy Families) became more restrictive, and as the nature of the economy changed, the number of Americans receiving disability insurance (SSDI) and need-based disability support (SSI) rose. And many more Americans made claims on the system than were ultimately awarded benefits. Drawing on the archives of state and local social welfare bureaucracies—still an underutilized source—this paper explores what claims-making looked like at the ground level. Did the relative availability of disability-based income support programs encourage poor Americans to think of themselves or their family members as “disabled”? If so, what was the broader significance of these acts of identification and affiliation? For example, did claiming disability affect poor Americans’ understanding of public authority or of their own place in the polity? Answering these questions will help us understand our current moment, in which disability is at once stigmatizing and marginalizing, but also, for some people, a crucial lifeline and the basis for legitimate claims on government.
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