Galer on Carmody, 'Work Requirements: Race, Disability, and the Print Culture of Social Welfare'

Todd Carmody. Work Requirements: Race, Disability, and the Print Culture of Social Welfare. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022. Illustrations. 320 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-1807-0; $104.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-1544-4. 

Reviewed by Dustin Galer (MyHistorian)
Published on H-Disability (June, 2023)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version:

From the opening anecdote analyzing the story behind one panhandler and an unscrupulous heckler who flew his own “truth-telling” sign, cultural historian Todd Carmody links past efforts to spin a certain pejorative narrative about the “welfare queen” or “bum” with the contemporary ostracization of people who supposedly seek to escape the universal requirement to work (p. 2). Such narratives not only were reproduced down the generations but also were reflected in all manner of print culture that, when read against the grain, hold a mirror up to a society that has long categorized humanity into haves and have-nots, producers and consumers, “makers” and “takers” (p. 3). For Carmody, there is a direct line that connects the victimization of those at the periphery in early America with the current ideological divide that separates morally superior workers from the lazy, no-good, physically and mentally ill, criminal, visible minorities of American society. Analysis of projections of these historical dichotomies and the idealization of work in material culture, therefore, is not just an anodyne academic exercise but also an attempt to understand how we reached a place where a self-entitled maverick feels entitled to hold up a sign next to an unemployed disabled panhandler to “set the record straight” that reads “I offered him a job and he refused” (p. 1).

In Work Requirements, Carmody considers how social welfare in the United States from the 1860s to the 1920s was closely structured around puritanical principles that placed high value on work as the means to achieve salvation, a moralistic approach that was projected on welfare recipients and an unsuspecting broader public. This moralizing showed up in print culture left behind by practitioners and planners, their relentless efforts to police the minds and bodies of people with disabilities, racial minorities, and incarcerated individuals detectable in representations of work-based welfare (or “workfare,” as it is sometimes called). Work, even (or especially) pointless and demeaning tasks, was represented as a sort of cleansing agent, helping to wash away the stink of indignity of those individuals, families, and groups at the economic margins who debased themselves by coming to rely on welfare benefits, presumably through some fault of their own. H-Disability readers will recognize the casting of disability and people with disabilities as literally the opposite of what it means to be a contributing member of society, only helpful in this worldview by defining the boundaries of who gets to belong in this brave new republic.

The book is neatly organized into four long chapters on pensions, beggary, imagery, and music, exploring these dimensional aspects of America’s “work society,” that outcropping of the Protestant work ethic mixed into the porous foundations of Western capitalism (p. 5). Carmody shows how work was imbued with meaning and used as a primary method of social organization, an approach made visible through images and texts produced as part of cultural and bureaucratic practices prior to the advent in 1935 of formalized social security. Those unable to work for various reasons were deliberately sidelined in social and civic discourse and forced to justify their existence as belonging to a class of people who either could not or would not work. Disability, it turns out, was a relational category in various genres used to police the boundaries of citizenship in this work society, including the criminalization of poverty in both white and Black America. Visual and literary depictions of “work tests” were used to help raise understanding of these categories, drawing scrutinizing eyes on the bodies of racial minorities and people with disabilities to determine where they fit in a speculative continuum of deserving and undeserving welfare recipients (p. 22).

The first section considers the advent of the Civil War pension system that began as an effort to compensate injured veterans but purportedly descended into a chaotic and corrupt bureaucracy deserving only of public mistrust and a repository of racist speculation. The second section explores the role of beggars in public imagination, from the plucking of heartstrings with their sad stories to institutional containment and correction in literary and filmic depictions. The third section studies the back story of photographic, cinematic, and ethnographic representations of work and motion studies that demonstrate the degree to which scientific rationalism shaped the development of welfare systems and percolated out into society. The fourth and final section examines the co-optation of African American work folk songs into social welfare schemes and ethnographies that tried to find meaning in the music of free and forced labor.

Work Requirements is a well-written and creatively imagined volume from a mature field of disability history, yet another wonderful example of the ubiquity of disability in history and proof it is an essential tool of modern historiography. Carmody is careful to point out that this is not intended as a comprehensive picture of US social welfare history—nor should it aspire to be. Rather, the book serves as a wonderful example of using disability to read against the grain to lift new insights from otherwise well-trod territory in American history. Carmody uses foundational scholarly works in critical disability studies as a jumping-off point to explore new perspectives on disability and race, including fascinating connections between Black history and disability history. Further proof that people with disabilities not only exist in but also shape our understanding of the historical record is welcomed and is necessary as a follow-up to Carmody’s genre-bending work. One can imagine the extent to which disability was deployed to police the boundaries of other racialized groups in later eras or to shore up faith in capitalism in a postindustrial declining democracy in the United States. Inspirational in its promise and execution, Work Requirements deserves to be essential reading in disability and labor studies.

Citation: Dustin Galer. Review of Carmody, Todd, Work Requirements: Race, Disability, and the Print Culture of Social Welfare. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. June, 2023.

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