Book Review: The Sympathetic State by Michele Landis Dauber 1

Over the summer I read the wonderful book, The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State. The author, Michele Landis Dauber is a professor of law as well as the Bernard D. Bergreen Faculty Scholar at Stanford University. While I have never met Professor Dauber, she and I have been traveling in overlapping scholarly circles through the Law and Society Association for several years. When I moved from property and takings into studies of disasters and law, I quickly stumbled upon her work. When the University of Chicago Press released her book last year I bought it and put it in my pile of work-related reading. I finally got to it — and wish I had gotten to it earlier.

Dauber’s argument is that disaster relief and the “disaster narrative” is central to the development of the American welfare state. What she means by “disaster narrative” is especially interesting to me as these narratives (i.e., stories we tell about disasters and their victims) have major impacts upon public perceptions that feed into public policy. For Dauber, the disaster narrative she is primarily interested in is one developed during the New Deal that “fashion[ed] a story against the backdrop of an existing moral economy that would constitute a compelling case for aid” (p. 11). This “compelling case for aid” may have started in narratives around natural disasters, but Dauber argues that during the Depression it was stretched to include other social problems. Unemployment, according to Dauber, became a “disaster” that had to be addressed through legislation. The chronic unemployment that characterized The Great Depression is often attributed to drought, but quite likely is more closely linked to the mechanization of farming. Whatever its underlying causes, it was framed as a “disaster” by the Roosevelt administration in order to provide a moral basis for providing aid through Congressional legislation for those migrant workers, farm laborers and sharecroppers who found themselves deprived of the jobs they had customarily held. Dauber examines the development of this disaster narrative in US welfare policy beginning at the founding, and moving through the New Deal era. Her argument is wells documented and very persuasive. Indeed, Dauber’s account of how the attempt to stretch “disaster relief” to include unemployment at the national level is one of the great achievements of this book.

In addition, making extensive use of archival work, Dauber provides some interesting content analysis to support her view that not only did a disaster narrative develop in national political institutions, but that non-political actors such as citizens who had suffered unemployment and other economic hardships, deployed the disaster narrative in their attempts to receive assistance. She uncovers the characteristics and structure of this narrative through extensive research not only into governmental documents, but also materials such as the letters requesting aid from President and Mrs. Roosevelt.

Along these lines, one of Dauber’s most interesting research strategies includes a careful content analysis of letters to Eleanor Roosevelt. Hundreds of thousands of letters were written to Mrs. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. This large body of material, combined with other official documents such as the census, provides Dauber with a rich dataset for exploring the way those seeking assistance imagined what requests would be granted. Both they way these letter writers conceived the government as well as their own situation are on display in these letters. Dauber explains the writers of these letters were ordinary people seeking assistance, who, she writes are “[u]nlike the judges, politicians, lawyers, artists, writers, and PR men [discussed earlier in the book] the writers…had only those persuasive resources they could mobilize over the kitchen table,” (p. 187). Dauber closely analyzes a random sample of 529 of these letters, then did additional analysis on a subset of 267, for whom she was able to find additional information. Fascinatingly, Dauber uncovers what she calls “the underlying moral order” that informed the writing of these letters. She uses them, as she explains, as “accounts” – which has a fairly specific meaning in social science: “as efforts by social actors to explain otherwise discrediting or inexplicable situations as a way that will make sense to their audience and purge their behavior of troublesome aspects” (p. 191).

As Dauber further explains, such accounts provide indicators of “shared understandings about what constitutes a good explanation of behavior, and indeed of what requires an explanation in the first place” (p. 191). In these letters to Mrs. Roosevelt, then, we learn that many, many of the letter writers felt the need to explain not only their current situation but why they could not support themselves. They did, indeed, provide excuses for seeking help. For the social scientists among my readers, Dauber explains that historians have treated these letters differently, seeing them as evidence of the hardship and need of the writers, or as autobiography of sorts (p. 192-193, citing Robert McElvine and Robert Cohen). Dauber uses the letters with a different goal in mind. Drawing on the insights of C. Wright Mills, she sees “a vocabulary of motives.” So many letters employ such similar strategies that, Dauber explains, the letters contain strong evidence of “a widespread expectation that these were the excuses and justifications that would be ‘honored’,” (p. 192). In other words, these were the reasons for the situations that were understandable and would elicit sympathy from the audience for the letters.

What makes her analysis particularly interesting is that Dauber pays attention to both the details in the letters and the details of the letters. Among other things, we learn they are very uniform in length (running to about 400 words). They often contain the same basic information (current employment status, and a very brief description of the difficulties faced by the family). By cross-referencing the letter writers’ names with the 1930 census data, Dauber could determine whether their home was classified as urban or rural, which supplemented the basic information already in the letters such as the occupation, gender and basic family structure of the writer. Dauber went a step further and located the manuscript census form for the letter writers when she could find them (she was successful over half the time). For these writers, Dauber was able to add great detail yet, such as the value of their homes or monthly rental costs, whether there was more than one generation of the family living in the home, and even whether a family owned a radio (p. 194). Such information allowed her to determine how unique these writers were, while also making clear the limitations her data contained.

These sorts of limitations always exist in any dataset, though it is not always the case that we can see them as well as Dauber can present them because of the multiple data sources she has. For example, Dauber reports that she was more likely to find information on rural letter writers than urban, and certainly more likely to find those who had not changed their name since the 1930 census. She points out that while there may be bias in her subsample of 267 letters, she is able to take these limitations into account. The one limitation I wish she had discussed more seems to be the middle class status of most of these letter writers. In terms of bias in their perception, the fact that they are not the poorest members of the population leads me to wonder whether there would be a class difference in the way requests for assistance would be made; that is, would the moral economy of social welfare provision look different if they were addressing not their own needs, but more destitute victims of unemployment and economic hardship? That said Dauber does, indeed, do a very good job in both noting various issues and carefully not overstating her findings. I would not be able to raise the question about the class status of these letter writers had she not so carefully parsed both the language of the letters and the writers. Her findings do provide us with a remarkable sense of what the shared understandings of these letter writers were, and why they believed they deserved help from the government. After carefully examining them, Dauber concludes her analysis of the letters:

These letters are replete with evidence of a shared sense of entitlement, if a peculiarly American strain. In order to qualify for help in this system, the test is neither loyalty nor need but losing out through no fault of one’s own… [M]ost writers had an employed bread-winner. They asked not for food or shelter but often for quite frivolous things; nice clothing, vacations, summer camps, help paying off chattel mortgages so that they would not their rugs and furniture to repossession. They wanted to get out of debt, start businesses, and send their children to college. While many asked for loans, most expected to receive a gift and expected to be able to spend it as they saw fit, free from the scrutiny of gossipy neighbors and the interfering do-gooders down at the local relief board.

From the perspective these writers, disaster had struck, the government’s obligation to bring relief was activated and the citizen correctly sought to enforce the social contract.  (p. 222)

Ultimately, Dauber says that these letters demonstrate a “broadly held understanding of the American moral economy of social welfare provision” (p. 223). This is quite likely true. One of the things, however, I wanted to understand better was whether these, often middle class letter writers, maintained the same beliefs about others who had been much less fortunate. Did they see families with no breadwinner that were suffering from the weather-related disasters (including the drought) or economic hardships such as a bottomed-out market in soybeans or corn – did these same writers extend their belief about this moral economy of social welfare provision to the much less fortunate? Based upon earlier chapters in her book, the link between the unemployed and a “disaster” was pecularilarly difficult to produce inside of governmental institutions and at the national level. Yet here she shows that many middle class individuals embraced it.

My questions, not answered by this book, are these: if Dauber is correct, how did middle class individuals, suffering and requesting aid by writing to the President and his wife, perceive the needs of others? How did their perceptions concerning social welfare provision fit into the moral economy of social welfare provision for the much more poor? How did their beliefs about aid structure their voting behavior? And in turn, did this influence the way legislators structured our welfare policy? This strikes me as the next step in this work, to link the letters back into the policymaking process. Broadly, it is an issue that scholars interested in poverty and social welfare in the United States have taken up, but with Dauber’s work we have new insights into the way disaster relief played a role in the development of the New Deal social welfare programs and insight into the understandings of social welfare prevalent among some of the members of the society at the time. By reconnecting the public’s perceptions in these letters to the policymaking process, we may be able to understand even more fully the contemporary politics of welfare as well as the continuing power of disaster relief narratives.

Full cite to Dauber’s Book:

Dauber, Michele Landis. 2013. The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State. The University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL).


Cohen, Robert, ed. Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

McElvaine, Robert S. Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the “Forgotten Man.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Mills, C. Wright. “Situated Action and Vocabularies of Motive.” American Sociological Review 5, no. 6 (1940): 904-13.

Scott, Marvin B., and Stanford M. Lyman. “Accounts.” American Sociological Review, 33, no. 1(1968): 46-62.