Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Memo to America, Re: Welfare in the Olden Days

Gabriel Loiacono 
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.
I find myself having a conversation like that one more and more these days.  Whether on the left or the right politically, high school grads or Ph.D.s, most Americans I talk to assume that welfare is a creation of the twentieth century: midwifed by Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson.  Those hearty, independent minutemen of the Revolutionary period, they assume, either made the poor find work or relied only on churches for charity. 

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.[1]

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

I would go on, of course, to flesh this statement out with some background, evidence, and precision.  I would point out that poor laws came to North America almost with the first British settlers, and that a large welfare state developed in almost every English municipality.  I would cite figures showing that poor relief comprised more than half of most municipalities’ budgets before the 1820s, when school and road costs grew large enough to match poor relief.  I would feel compelled to mention that poor relief could mean a poorhouse, but more often some combination of cash, food, clothes, firewood, doctor’s attention, medicine, or even full-time nursing care.  I would highlight how significant local taxes were to most early Americans, compared with much lower state taxes and almost non-existent federal taxes. 
"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.” [2]

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?


[1] On respectable-looking websites, see “The Poor in America Before the Welfare State,” at Intellectual Takeout: Feed Your Mind  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. 

[2] Elna C. Green, This Business of Relief: Confronting Poverty in a Southern City, 1740-1940, p. 1.


Unknown said...

Some great points! I remember how surprised I was when I began researching my local county government, and I discovered the number of elderly, impoverished applicants for the County Poor Farm. Our local Poor Farm continued to hold the elderly poor until the 1930s, when Franklin's New Deal gave people another option.

Eric B. Schultz said...

A great post--not only interesting, but dangerous in that it threatens to confuse political positions with facts!

Unknown said...

I think it's significant that the historical welfare you describe was mostly local and the current programs are mostly federal. As you say, grocers and local service-providers benefited, but I also think there was something different about going to a town meeting and discussing the poor farm budget. Made you come face to face with poverty in your town, and maybe think about its causes and possible remedies. Interesting too, that you mention the 1820s. I wonder how many townsfolk had their eyes opened by the 1816 "year without a summer," to what it might be like to live without a safety net?

hcr said...

This is a real eye-opener!

Gabriel Loiacono said...

Thanks all. I would have commented earlier, but I was doing some international travel. There are some good insights here. I think Dan is right that there is something significantly different about dealing with poverty and its costs at the local level. It is more face-to-face. One is more likely, at least in smaller towns, to know the beneficiaries. I also think the post-New Deal history of local institutions is fascinating and I wish I knew more about that.