The best books on the history of the welfare state

Ángela Vergara Author Of Fighting Unemployment in Twentieth-Century Chile
By Ángela Vergara

Who am I?

I’m a historian of Latin America and a professor at California State University, Los Angeles. I write about Chile’s labor and social history in the twentieth century. As a historian, I am especially interested in understanding how working people relate with public institutions and authorities, what they expect from the state, and how they have organized and expanded social and economic rights. While my research centers in Chile and Latin America, I also look to place regional debates in a transnational framework and see how ideas and people have moved across borders. I like books that bring working people’s diverse voices and experiences. 


I wrote...

Fighting Unemployment in Twentieth-Century Chile

By Ángela Vergara,

Book cover of Fighting Unemployment in Twentieth-Century Chile

What is my book about?

In Fighting Unemployment in Twentieth-Century Chile, Ángela Vergara narrates the story of how industrial and mine workers, peasants and day laborers, as well as blue-collar and white-collar employees earned a living through periods of economic, political, and social instability in twentieth-century Chile. The Great Depression transformed how Chileans viewed work and welfare rights and how they related to public institutions. Influenced by global and regional debates, the state put modern agencies in place to count and assist the poor and expand their social and economic rights.

Fighting Unemployment in Twentieth-Century Chile contributes to understanding the profound inequality that permeates Chilean history through a detailed analysis of the relationship between welfare professionals and the unemployed, the interpretation of labor laws, and employers’ everyday attitudes.

The books I picked & why

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Women Build the Welfare State: Performing Charity and Creating Rights in Argentina, 1880-1955

By Donna J. Guy,

Book cover of Women Build the Welfare State: Performing Charity and Creating Rights in Argentina, 1880-1955

Why this book?

My first choice is a book about the origins of the welfare state. If many see the Great Depression as the catalyst of the welfare state, Donna Guy traces it back to the social policies and institutions of the nineteenth century. Looking at the case of Argentina, she tells the story of how philanthropic, immigrant, and women groups assisted the needy, especially children and mothers.

Inventing the Needy: Gender and the Politics of Welfare in Hungary

By Lynne Haney,

Book cover of Inventing the Needy: Gender and the Politics of Welfare in Hungary

Why this book?

This is a fantastic book to understand how welfare institutions work. Lynne Haney, a sociologist, looks at the state from the bottom up and analyzes the relationship between welfare recipients and caseworkers in Hungary. It is a book rich in stories that place people, especially women, at the center of debates about welfare and social rights.

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

By Linda Gordon,

Book cover of Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

Why this book?

In the 1930s, Dorothea Lang photographed poor and migrant families across the United States. She documented the devastating impact of the Great Depression, contributing to raising national awareness about the consequences of poverty. In this outstanding and engaging biography, Linda Gordon tells the story of her life and work and how her photographs were part of a larger political movement to transform and expand social protection to US citizens.

Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement

By Premilla Nadasen,

Book cover of Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement

Why this book?

It is difficult to find an accessible and comprehensible history of the welfare state in the United States. But this book does exactly that. Premilla Nadasen writes an engaging overview of the welfare rights movement and the role played by radical Black feminist organizations. By analyzing the primary campaigns of the movement for welfare reform throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the reader gets a complete picture of the main actors involved and their political demands.

Patients of the State: The Politics of Waiting in Argentina

By Javier Auyero,

Book cover of Patients of the State: The Politics of Waiting in Argentina

Why this book?

What does remain of the old welfare institutions of the mid-twentieth century? How has neoliberalism cut social infrastructure? Javier Auyero looks at welfare and public services in present-day Argentina, a system that, despite the crisis, continues to offer some form of protection to impoverished working families. The book is fascinating and demonstrates how “waiting” has come to define how poor people relate to the state and access rights and benefits.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in poverty, welfare, and Hungary?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about poverty, welfare, and Hungary.

Poverty Explore 37 books about poverty
Welfare Explore 2 books about welfare
Hungary Explore 20 books about Hungary

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, and The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World if you like this list.