One evening, chatting with friends from church, one asked me what kind of history I focused on. I told him: the history of welfare in early America. He said: what welfare in early America?
|"The drunkard's progress, or the direct |
road to poverty, wretchedness & ruin," 1826.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Occasionally, this assumption is voiced explicitly in national, political discourse. For example, in a famous September 12, 2011 Republican Presidential Primary debate, Representative Ron Paul described assistance to the poor in the past thus: “Our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it.” Less off-the-cuff, respectable-looking websites will tell you that charity was almost entirely private before FDR, aside from a few dark and dingy poorhouses, which were more effective at driving inmates out than keeping them comfortable. And it is not only critics of welfare who think this; one can find defenders of welfare describing the U.S.A. as essentially without welfare before FDR.
More often, this assumption is implicit. You can see this in recent discussions of food stamp policy and the Farm Bill. When both critics and defenders of welfare policy bring history into the argument, they usually head back to the 1960s. Occasionally, they reach back to the 1930s. They almost never go further back in time. On both sides, the assumption is that prior to the New Deal, there was no welfare to discuss. Thus, these are the good old days or the bad old days depending on what you think about welfare today.
It is for this reason that I fantasize about writing the following memo:
TO: The American People
FROM: A Historian
CC: Candidates, Think Tanks, Warriors of the Internet Comment Boards
SUBJECT: Um, actually there was welfare when the United States was founded
|"Publicly-owned poor houses like the Dexter Asylum |
in Providence, Rhode Island did not come cheaply."
Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
This would lead to the obvious comparisons. Americans spent more than half of their taxes on poor relief when George Washington was president, compared to 12% on the federal “safety net” today, or 55% if you include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Unlike today’s contributors to Social Security and Medicare, however, most taxpayers (read: property owners) in 1789 would not have expected to benefit from poor relief in their lifetimes. They could depend on it, though, if they ever met with a financial catastrophe. I would almost certainly quote historian Elna Green’s witticism, that so many grocers, doctors, wood-hewers, etcetera made money from the town by helping the poor that the poor law system should be called the “welfare/industrial complex.” 
Finally, I would point out one big difference between early America and the present: Today’s welfare is largely federal while early America’s was largely municipal. In fact, I think the local nature of early American welfare is the reason why so many policy analysts overlook welfare’s past. They just don’t look at the state and local levels of government.
My fantasy memo is not a prelude to some specific policy prescription for the present day. I just wish that when we do bring history to the argument, we use a reasonably correct version. As an historian writing about pre-Civil War poor relief, I find myself cringing almost every time the history of welfare surges into public discourse. Usually, there is a 300-year hole in the story. For colonial American and U.S. history, that is a pretty big hole!
Surely, though, I am not alone among historians. What about the rest of you? What makes you cringe? You historians who see your subjects of expertise routinely misrepresented, what do you do? What is your responsibility? How do you lend your expertise in a helpful way?
 On respectable-looking websites, see “The Poor in America Before the Welfare State,” at Intellectual Takeout: Feed Your Mind www.intellectualtakeout.org/library/sociology-and-culture/poor-america-welfare-state. For a defender of welfare on the non-existent past of welfare, see Charles Michael Andres Clark, “The Truth Deficit: Four Myths About Deficit Spending,” in Commonweal July 12, 2011.
 Elna C. Green, This Business of Relief: Confronting Poverty in a Southern City, 1740-1940, p. 1.