Brutal Need

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Lawyers and the Welfare Rights Movement, 1960-1973

Martha F. Davis

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During the 1960s a new breed of "poverty lawyers"—in collaboration with welfare recipient activists—mounted a legal campaign to create a constitutional right to welfare. The collaboration worked significant changes in the social welfare system of the United States and in the scope of individual constitutional rights. In this book, Martha F. Davis tells the behind-the-scenes story of the strategies, successes, failures, and frustrations of that important campaign.

Drawing on interviews with many of the people who participated in the welfare rights movement, as well as on original sources, Davis traces the historical and philosophical connections among welfare rights lawyers, the settlement house movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the civil rights movement, and she shows how the legal campaign for the poor followed and built on the litigation strategies developed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's earlier effort to desegregate the public schools. She outlines the creation of welfare law in the 1960s and provides the first detailed account of the strategy to use law as a mechanism for organizing and expanding the rights of welfare recipients. She vividly describes seminal cases and individual lawyers and activists, including Edward Sparer, the lawyer acknowledged as the father of welfare law; George Wiley, founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization; and Charles Reich, whose theories were crucial to the formulation of the plaintiffs' position in Goldberg v. Kelly, the landmark case that argued that welfare benefits were protected by the due process clause and should not be terminated without a hearing. Even though 1960s welfare rights litigation was ultimately unsuccessful in broadly reforming the welfare system, Davis shows the important role legal strategies and lawyers themselves have played in this social movement of the poor.

Martha F. Davis is a staff attorney for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund

"Brutal Need is a magnificent book. It combines sophisticated analysis of legal principles defining the rights of the poor, a rich social history of the organization of poor people in the 1960s, and gripping biographies of the leading participants in the often neglected social movement. It is a pleasure to read this lucid book. Davis provides insight, even to a person who participated in the events she describes."—Sylvia Law, New York University School of Law

"An accurate, informative, and highly readable book on a fascinating topic."—Shep Melnick, Brandeis University

"[A] succinct and elegant book, Brutal Need enriches today's impoverished discussion of welfare reform."—Linda Gordon, Nation

"Martha Davis has written an insightful history of a very different world that briefly existed only thirty years ago. Davis captures a decade when President Johnson launched a War on Poverty and tens of thousands of welfare recipients organized a national political movement. . . . [She] combines intricate details of landmark litigation, thoughtful discussions of the larger social context in which the courtroom battles were fought, and fascinating sketches of some of the key players in the drama."—Andrew Dwyer, Georgetown Journal on Fighting Poverty

"A highly recommendable and readable account of the important campaign for welfare rights."—Arthur J. Lurigio, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

"A brief but important and pioneering contribution to American social welfare and legal history."—Walter I. Trattner, American Historical Review

"A well written and engrossing account of the efforts of few young lawyers to wage war on poverty on their own terms. . . . The passion, creativity, and energy of the book's protagonists present a challenge to today's poverty lawyers and to those in generations to come to stretch themselves to do more and to experiment with new approaches to long-standing problems."—Matthew Diller, Michigan Law Review

"In lucid prose, Davis tells the compelling story of the sometimes difficult but inspiring and pioneering 1960s alliance between lawyers and welfare rights activists. This book is both a good read and good history."—Frances Fox Piven, coauthor of Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare

Awarded a 1994 American Bar Association Certificate of Merit award

Awarded 2001 Reginald Heber Smith Book Award, given by the National Equal Justice Library
ISBN: 9780300064247
Publication Date: September 27, 1995
200 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4