Abstract: Henry Ford and the Inkster Project: Welfare Capitalism in Depression-Era Detroit

Beth Bates

Abstract

Historically, the Great Depression has been regarded as a time when welfare capitalism was in decline. Yet Henry Ford launched his Inkster Project in 1931 to provide private welfare for black workers and their families during desperate times. He did so at a point when the Ford Motor Company was severely in the red and after having abandoned its Five-Dollar Day, profit-sharing plan during the 1920s for less costly means of controlling its workers. Why did Ford chose the Depression to revive welfare capitalism? The Inkster Project has been treated as an example of Ford's philanthropy at its purest, with the caveat that the project was a valuable insurance policy against incursions by union activists. I argue the Ford's motives were more complicated. Early in 1931, Henry Ford and Frank Murphy, the mayor of Detroit, were engaged in a showdown over the proper approach for providing relief to destitute citizens during hard times. Murphy's reelection campaign in November 1931 was, in part, a referendum on welfare capitalism versus the welfare state. Within days of Mayor Murphy's reelection, Ford showcased his answer to public relief in the form of the private-sector provisions provided by the Inkster Project.