Elisabeth Anderson

Apr 11, 2022

Agents of Reform

Child Labor and the Origins of the Welfare State

Princeton University Press 2021

The beginnings of the modern welfare state are often traced to the late nineteenth-century labor movement and to policymakers’ efforts to appeal to working-class voters. But in Agents of Reform: Child Labor and the Origins of the Welfare State (Princeton UP, 2021), Elisabeth Anderson shows that the regulatory welfare state began a half-century earlier, in the 1830s, with the passage of the first child labor laws. 

Agents of Reform tells the story of how middle-class and elite reformers in Europe and the United States defined child labor as a threat to social order, and took the lead in bringing regulatory welfare into being. They built alliances to maneuver around powerful political blocks and instituted pathbreaking new employment protections. Later in the century, now with the help of organized labor, they created factory inspectorates to strengthen and routinize the state’s capacity to intervene in industrial working conditions. Agents of Reform compares seven in-depth case studies of key policy episodes in Germany, France, Belgium, Massachusetts, and Illinois. Foregrounding the agency of individual reformers, it challenges existing explanations of welfare state development and advances a new pragmatist field theory of institutional change. In doing so, it moves beyond standard narratives of interests and institutions toward an integrated understanding of how these interact with political actors’ ideas and coalition-building strategies.

Agents of Reform is a pathbreaking contribution to our understanding of the emergence of the welfare state and the role of social movements in political reform.

Javier Mejia is an economist teaching at Stanford University, whose work focuses on the intersection between social networks and economic history. His interests extend to topics on entrepreneurship and political economy with a geographical specialty in Latin America and the Middle East. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Los Andes University. He has been a Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer at New York University--Abu Dhabi and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Bordeaux. He is a regular contributor to different news outlets. Currently, he is Forbes Magazine op-ed columnist.

Listen to more episodes on:

Your Host

Javier Mejia

Javier Mejia is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Political Science Department at Stanford University.

Learn More

Also Hosted By Javier Mejia