The Adoption of Workers' Compensation in the United States 1900-1930

Price V. Fishback, Shawn Everett Kantor

NBER Working Paper No. 5840
Issued in November 1996
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

The adoption of workers' compensation in the 1910s, from a variety of perspectives, was a significant event in the economic, legal, and political history of the United States. The legislation represented the first instance of a widespread social insurance program in the United States, setting the stage for the later adoption of federal government programs for unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, and health insurance. In this paper, we show that the adoption of workers' compensation was not the result of employers' or workers' to secure benefits at the expense of the other group. Nor was the success of compensation legislation simply the outcome of Progressive Era social reformers' demands for protective legislation. Workers' compensation was enacted rapidly across the United States in the 1910s because the key economic interest groups with a stake in the legislation -- employers, workers, and insurance companies -- anticipated benefits from resolving an apparent first decade of the twentieth century, workplace accident risk rose, state legislatures adopted a series of employers' liability laws, and court decisions limited employers' defenses in liability suits, which all combined to substantially increase the uncertainty of the negligence liability system.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w5840

Published: Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 41, no. 2, part 2 (October 1998): 305-341. citation courtesy of

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