This article uses the politics of old age to help explain the moral conservatism of the American welfare state. It argues that the onset of Fordism caused both uneven economic displacement of old workers and broader anxiety among social reformers about dependency and the forms of social disorder it produced by disturbing normative families. The management of this disturbance became a key promise of the movement for old-age pensions in the 1920s, in which Progressive labor reformers and conservative workers’ and fraternal organizations combined in an effort to support and rehabilitate the patriarchal family form through social policy. This logic ultimately became embedded in Social Security. Grasping this helps clarify the conservative dimensions of the New Deal as a moment of class, state, and racial formation.

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