On January 5, 2014—the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty—the New York Times asked a panel of opinion leaders a simple question: “Does the U.S. Need Another War on Poverty?” While the answers varied, all the invited debaters accepted the martial premise of the question—that a war on poverty had been fought and that eliminating poverty was, without a doubt, a “fight,” or a “battle.”
Yet the debate over the manner—martial or not—by which the federal government and public policy has dealt with the issue of poverty in the United States is still very much an open-ended one.
The evolution and development of the postwar American welfare state is a story not only of a number of “wars,” or individual political initiatives, against poverty, but also about the growth of institutions within and outside government that seek to address, alleviate, and eliminate poverty and its concomitant social ills. It is a complex and at times messy story, interwoven with the wider historical trajectory of this period: civil rights, the rise and fall of a “Cold War consensus,” the emergence of a counterculture, the Vietnam War, the credibility gap, the rise of conservatism, the end of “welfare,” and the emergence of compassionate conservatism. Mirroring the broader organization of the American political system, with a relatively weak center of power and delegated authority and decision-making in fifty states, the welfare model has developed and grown over decades. Policies viewed in one era as unmitigated failures have instead over time evolved and become part of the fabric of the welfare state.
Housing in America has long stood as a symbol of the nation’s political values and a measure of its economic health. In the 18th century, a farmhouse represented Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of independent property owners; in the mid-20th century, the suburban house was seen as an emblem of an expanding middle class. Alongside those well-known symbols were a host of other housing forms—tenements, slave quarters, row houses, French apartments, loft condos, and public housing towers—that revealed much about American social order and the material conditions of life for many people.
Since the 19th century, housing markets have been fundamental forces driving the nation’s economy and a major focus of government policies. Home construction has provided jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers. Land speculation, housing development, and the home mortgage industry have generated billions of dollars in investment capital, while ups and downs in housing markets have been considered signals of major changes in the economy. Since the New Deal of the 1930s, the federal government has buttressed the home construction industry and offered economic incentives for home buyers, giving the United States the highest home ownership rate in the world. The housing market crash of 2008 slashed property values and sparked a rapid increase in home foreclosures, especially in places like Southern California and the suburbs of the Northeast, where housing prices had ballooned over the previous two decades. The real estate crisis led to government efforts to prop up the mortgage banking industry and to assist struggling homeowners. The crisis led, as well, to a drop in rates of home ownership, an increase in rental housing, and a growth in homelessness.
Home ownership remains a goal for many Americans and an ideal long associated with the American dream. The owner-occupied home—whether single-family or multifamily dwelling—is typically the largest investment made by an American family. Through much of the 18th and 19th centuries, housing designs varied from region to region. In the mid-20th century, mass production techniques and national building codes tended to standardize design, especially in new suburban housing. In the 18th century, the family home was a site of waged and unwaged work; it was the center of a farm, plantation, or craftsman’s workshop. Two and a half centuries later, a house was a consumer good: its size, location, and decor marked the family’s status and wealth.
Public authorities are agencies created by governments to engage directly in the economy for public purposes. They differ from standard agencies in that they operate outside the administrative framework of democratically accountable government. Since they generate their own operating income by charging users for goods and services and borrow for capital expenses based on projections of future revenues, they can avoid the input from voters and the regulations that control public agencies funded by tax revenues.
Institutions built on the public authority model exist at all levels of government and in every state. A few of these enterprises, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, are well known. Thousands more toil in relative obscurity, operating toll roads and bridges, airports, transit systems, cargo ports, entertainment venues, sewer and water systems, and even parking garages. Despite their ubiquity, these agencies are not well understood. Many release little information about their internal operations. It is not even possible to say conclusively how many exist, since experts disagree about how to define them, and states do not systematically track them.
One thing we do know about public authorities is that, over the course of the 20th century, these institutions have become a major component of American governance. Immediately following the Second World War, they played a minor role in public finance. But by the early 21st century, borrowing by authorities constituted well over half of all public borrowing at the sub-federal level. This change means that increasingly the leaders of these entities, rather than elected officials, make key decisions about where and how to build public infrastructure and steer economic development in the United States