Social welfare in the modern United States is an aspect of the legitimation and accumulation functions of government. It is legitimative in that it works to ameliorate the economy's disastrous human consequences. It fulfills the accumulation function by maintaining and enhancing conditions for the profitable conduct of commerce.1 These two basic functions can obviously be discharged in various ways and the social service worker's traditional commitment has co-existed with greater and lesser degrees of contentment with the nature of the existing society. Conscientious workers have always recognized that their role -- as mediators between individuals and organized society -- necessarily involves ambiguities. Certain "radical" writers of recent years have revealed a primitive political understanding by identifying social services entirely with the more repressive aspects of the legitimation function, particularly in the area of relief. As we shall see, the matter is not as simple as their diatribes would imply, but they have recognized an important issue. Relief has traditionally been the crucial social welfare service, to which all others are politically (and, often, administratively) allied. In recent decades, the political economy of American social welfare has eveolved in close conjunction with the development of relief and has largely reflected changes in the nature of poverty itself. This analysis must, therefore, begin with a look at the economic and political forces that have formed the basis of the existing American social welfare system.