"Marvin Olasky believes that the present American poverty programs and welfare system have failed, not only in terms of money squandered, but also in regard to human souls corrupted and national character corroded. As a Christian, he argues for a biblical model for fighting poverty. In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Olasky develops this argument historically, by chronicling and...
The Poor in America before the Welfare State
A common complaint in today’s society is the excessive growth of the welfare state. According to those who offer this complaint, the welfare state refers to the many entitlement programs which provide taxpayer-funded relief to needy individuals and families, the disabled, and the elderly. To many these programs have become an essential part of a well-ordered society, to the point that calls for diminishing their financial support are dismissed as cruel, unethical and unworkable. A look back at the history of poverty relief in the U.S. however suggests that government welfare has not always been considered to play such an integral role.
America’s first settlers and Founders were certainly not oblivious to the problems of poverty, nor were they callous in their treatment of it. Yet they explicitly urged its alleviation by means other than the federal government. This ideology was concisely expressed by James Madison, who declared that "Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government." And Ben Franklin once stated, "the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it."
Giving the poor a hand up rather than a hand out continued beyond the Founding era through a variety of private organizations and charities known as mutual aid societies. After visiting America in the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville made note of this phenomenon when he wrote, "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. ... Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association."
These types of organizations originally opposed a government-run, government-funded welfare state because they viewed mutual aid as an expression of independence and personal responsibility. With dues from members, they provided services such as unemployment insurance, workers compensation, health insurance, life insurance, and sick pay. In many cases, a fraternal society would hire a doctor to care for the members' families giving them access to reliable, inexpensive healthcare. Additionally, these organizations established a privatized safety net through orphanages, hospitals, and homes for the elderly.
Contrary to the major problems of fraud encountered in contemporary government-based welfare programs, the early American versions of mutual aid societies maintained an ethical organization by policing their own members to ensure benefits went to those who were legitimately in need. Such societies were also strict in their membership, permitting admittance not only by character but often by sex and race. However, this did not stop people of all demographics from starting mutual aid societies. There were societies for men, women, African Americans, Hispanics, Polish, German, Jewish, and others.
In addition to mutual aid societies, there were also missions, churches, and other private relief agencies. These organizations operated on the generosity of volunteers and benefactors ready and willing to give help to those truly in need and incapable of supporting themselves. Instead of freely doling out aid however, these types of organizations often encouraged work in return for assistance in order to avoid promoting idleness. Furthermore, this approach to relief sought to encourage "accountability" and address the "root problems" underlying an individual’s impoverished state.
Emergencies also tended to be handled through private charity. A notable example occured in 1871 when a fire tore through Chicago leaving 300,000 of its citizens without housing, basic necessities or work. Mayor Roswell B. Mason took measures to keep peace in the city both economically and socially. Donations poured in from around the country to the city, but the mayor did not place the city in charge of these funds. Rather he gave control of the relief effort over to the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, a private charity organization. Within two weeks Mayor Mason declared that work was available to almost everyone including the boys in the city and that aid was only to be given to those who were incapable of taking care of themselves.
Although private organizations were the main source of charity in America's early years, the government did offer a bit of aid for the poor in the form of poorhouses. According to one source, "Poorhouses were tax-supported residential institutions to which people were required to go if they could not support themselves." Due to the allegedly poor living and working conditions, poorhouses were typically viewed with fear and dread by those with minimal incomes, and many did everything they could to avoid them.
Poorhouses eventually faded from view, but government support of the poor did not. Although the private approach to poverty alleviation was often quite successful, the advent of the Great Depression began to slowly increase the federal government's role in poverty relief. Franklin Roosevelt, who once adamantly declared that government relief was a "narcotic," aggressively pursued a "New Deal" designed to raise living standards for the poor and middle class. FDR later presented a "second Bill of Rights" which stated that every American had a "right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation" and a "right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment."
In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society officially ushered in the modern welfare state with his declared war on poverty. Although this move did not eliminate private charity, it gradually created a national mentality that government should be counted on to provide for the poor, elderly, and disabled. As a result, dependence and spending on government relief has skyrocketed in recent decades.
Today, with America's national debt increasing at a rapid rate, many wonder how the government can continue to maintain the many welfare programs it has established. Others outright question whether or not the government's approach to welfare is effective and efficient at alleviating poverty at all.
With that in mind, this topic explores the history and philosophical basis of poverty relief in America before the advent of the welfare state, and provides discussions of how these lessons from the past might serve to inform aid for those in need in the future.
More About This Topic...
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- The Poorhouse Story
- History of 19th Century American Poorhouses
- The Relation between Private and Public Outdoor Relief - II
- The Relation between Private and Public Outdoor Relief - I
- Podcast: Mutual Aid: Private Alternatives to the Welfare State
- The Legacy of the Lodges: Mutual Aid and Consumer Society
- Government, Poverty, & Self-Reliance: Wisdom from 19th Century Presidents
- Black Philanthropy and Voluntarism in the Early Republic
- Veto of the Texas Seed Bill
- Contemporary Quotes on The Poor in America before the Welfare State