The Political Economy of Workers' Compensation Benefit Levels, 1910-1930

Price V. Fishback, Shawn Everett Kantor

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 95
Issued in November 1996
NBER Program(s):The Program on the Development of the American Economy

Although workers, employers, and insurance companies by 1910 supported the adoption of workers' compensation, they fiercely debated the specific features of the legislation. In this paper we examine how workers' compensation benefit levels were determined in the political process of forging compromises across interest groups, and even within individual groups. A quantitative analysis of the benefit levels in each state between the time of adoption and 1930 shows several important trends. Employers in dangerous industries effectively imposed limits on accident benefits, while organized labor and the commissions that administered the laws were instrumental in achieving higher expected benefit levels. Political reformers that gained control of state legislatures in the early twentieth century aided organized labor in achieving their goal of improving workers' compensation accident benefits. The paper also presents case-studies of the political struggle over benefits that occurred in" three states -- Ohio, Minnesota, and Missouri. These qualitative descriptions of the fight over benefit levels provide a more detailed picture of the political process through which workers' compensation was created because the cross-state quantitative study largely abstracts away from the political nuances that shaped workers' compensation legislation.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/h0095

Published: Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 35 (April 1998): 109-139.

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