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Food Assistance Policies and the Transformation of the Public/ Private Welfare State in the United States, 1964-1984


This dissertation explores the shifting politics of hunger, the welfare state and, more broadly, public/private provision in the United States during the late twentieth century. In particular, the project explores how social provision was – and was not – transformed from the 1960s through the 1980s using the lens of food assistance policies to track these changes. This period has come to be understood as one of central government retreat and service privatization. In this telling, lower public expenditures were meant to promote self-reliance among the able-bodied while prompting private agencies and charities to do more to help the poor. Instead of the binary of program growth and retreat that this standard narrative traces, the lens of public/private state development reveals a more complicated story. I argue there was not a mere transfer of services from the public to private sector, but a complex reconfiguration mediated by the state.

My dissertation examines a range of food assistance programs including federal surplus commodity distribution, the food stamp program, the national school lunch program, the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children (WIC), and food banking. During the 1950s and 1960s, public food welfare programs were relatively small. I identify how various constituencies reframed the idea of a right to food assistance in these decades, creating the conditions for rapid public program growth during the 1960s and 1970s. Then, stagflation of the 1970s placed limits on program expansion. Publicly funded food welfare became subject to increased political scrutiny in what was presented as a new era of budget austerity, individual responsibility, and heightened concern with waste, fraud, and abuse. This project tracks how legislators, policy intellectuals, and administration officials worked to reshape public and private food assistance in an age of limits. Changes made in the name of budget austerity in the 1970s became an opening for a more radical restructuring of public/private food assistance during the 1980s. Policymakers recategorized the need for food as a temporary emergency to be met through public subsidy for charitable, voluntary, and market-based solutions. While political differences were fought out directly in battles over legislation, I argue the equally if not more important battles took place in the hidden terrain of budget appropriations, program administration and implementation, and in framing the terms of debate. Through an analysis of the changing framing of hunger, and the mix of public and private welfare identified as an appropriate response, my project provides one lens to understand broader changes in social provision from the 1960s through the 1980s.

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