Institutional and Discretional Discrimination in Public Sector Programs: The Union Army Disability Pension

Sven E. Wilson, Brigham Young University

The Union Army pension in the 19th century was nominally color-blind—an unprecedented and ambitious social policy experiment. But, from the outset, blacks applied less frequently and were approved less frequently. Prior to the 1890 liberalization, the Board became increasingly lenient (resulting in more applications), but this discretion was not extended to blacks, and the approval rate for their applications plummeted. The 1890 law institutionalized some of the Board’s discretion, which narrowed the black-white enrollment gap considerably. However, the specific claims made by blacks were still less likely to be approved, especially those cases that were harder to diagnostically verify. By the turn of the century, the enrollment gap had become predominantly a result of discretional discrimination rather than differential application rates. And finally, although blacks and whites received similar pension awards when they entered the system, increases for white pensioners consistently outpaced those given to blacks.

  See paper

Presented in Session 15: Historical Demography