Few students ever learn that government-funded welfare, not to mention generous private charity, has existed throughout American history. Most conservatives opposed New Deal programs and the War on Poverty in the s…. Human needs, they say, can and should be taken care of by charities. Nothing in Berman and Murphy contradicts that conclusion.
Why Can’t We End Poverty in America? - The New York Times
Most history textbooks present accounts that are the same as or similar to the accounts given by these political scientists. These claims about the American past are either untrue or misleading. America has always had laws providing for the poor. Neither approach has a monopoly on compassion. The question is: What policies help the poor, and what policies harm them?
Reacting to what they regard as the excesses of the modern welfare state, conservatives tend to assume that poor relief in early America was entirely private. Let it be promoted by individuals and families, by churches, private hospitals, religious service organizations, community charities and other institutions that have been established for this purpose.
Scholarly historians of welfare in America present a more accurate picture, but they too tend to dismiss the approach of earlier Americans, including the Founding generation. These historians are generally dismayed by the earlier distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. They tend to present the earlier welfare system as either a well-intentioned or a mean-spirited failure. In the standard history of welfare in America, Walter Trattner writes that: .
From the earliest colonial days, local governments took responsibility for their poor. However, able-bodied men and women generally were not supported by the taxpayers unless they worked. They would sometimes be placed in group homes that provided them with food and shelter in exchange for labor. Only those who were too young, old, weak, or sick and who had no friends or family to help them were taken care of in idleness. The Founders had little to say about the topic of poor relief.
Like the family, welfare was not a controversial topic. Jefferson explained the Virginia poor laws at the time of the Revolution: . In keeping with the spirit of the Revolution, which separated church from state, Virginia transferred this task from church to county government in , as Jefferson had proposed. For Jefferson, the abolition of primogeniture and entail was a far more important anti-poverty measure than poor laws providing housing and food for people in need.
When Benjamin Franklin lived in England in the s, he observed that the poverty problem was much worse in that country than in America. Britain did not limit its support of the poor to a safety net provided under conditions that prevented abuse. There, the poor were given enough that they could live in idleness.
The result was to increase poverty by giving the poor a powerful incentive not to become self-supporting. Franklin wrote: . Their policies were intended to help the poor in ways that did not violate the rights of taxpayers or promote irresponsible behavior. Far from being compassionate, compelling workers to support shirkers makes some men masters and other men slaves: Workers are enslaved to nonworkers. That violates a fundamental principle of the Declaration of Independence.
To say that all men are born with a right to liberty means that no man has the right to rob another of the fruits of his labor. Jefferson affirmed his principled opposition to government redistribution of income from the rich to the poor in this statement: . According to the Declaration of Independence, we have an unalienable or natural right only to those things that we possess by nature.
We are born alive and free, so life and liberty are natural rights, but no one has a natural right to a decent income or free medical care. Even taxpayers benefit from the policy because there may come a time when they too need help. He cites no evidence to support that insinuation because there is none.
In colonial times, some communities supported the poor in their own homes or in the homes of others.
Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?
Now, writes Trattner: . Because public aid was so limited, there was wide scope for individual acts of generosity and liberality. Even before the Revolution, writes Trattner: . After the Revolution and throughout the 19th century, hospitals for the poor, educational institutions, YMCAs, and Salvation Army branches were established in growing numbers all over America by public-spirited citizens.
Like the public workhouses, these private charities distinguished between deserving and undeserving poor. Good character, it was thought, would enable most people to become self-sufficient. These agencies tried to build the character of their recipients through education, moral suasion, religious instruction, and work.
Private welfare was often given by religious groups, and recipients were expected to pray, worship, and repent of the unindustrious habits and self-indulgence such as excessive drinking that often led them to seek assistance in the first place.
Americans of that day believed that God himself set the proper example: His mercy is infinite—but only to the repentant who strive to mend their ways. Let us step back for a moment and look at poverty from a wider perspective. Benefit levels are much higher, and far more people are eligible for support. That is what leads historians like Michael Katz to condemn the earlier approach as a failure.
However, if poverty and welfare policies are judged by their effectiveness in providing for the minimal needs of the poor while dramatically reducing poverty in a society over time, then America before could be said to have had the most successful welfare policy in world history. By the same benchmark, post poverty programs have failed. Most houses were small, ill-constructed, and poorly heated and insulated.
Based on federal family income estimates, 59 percent of Americans lived in poverty as late as , before the Great Depression. As of , the poverty rate was In other words, before the huge growth in government spending on poverty programs, poverty was declining rapidly in America. After the new programs were fully implemented, the poverty rate stopped declining.
In the older America, most poor people were free to work or go into business without asking permission from government. Low taxes and minimal regulation allowed them to keep most of the fruits of their labor. The stability of marriage encouraged men to meet their family obligations. Government officials, teachers, and writers praised the dignity of responsible self-support and condemned irresponsible dependence on government handouts. In the Middle Ages, a serf might have worked hard all his life, but much of what he produced went into the hands of a wealthy landowner.
In most countries of the world, including America today, government regulation and licensing requirements often prevent the poor from entering and competing freely in the market. Besides, much of what the working poor earn through their own efforts is taxed away to support those who do not work.
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By , many intellectuals were turning away from the traditional American view that in a free country, frugal and industrious conduct usually leads to an adequate living. Of course, the Founders had never claimed that all poverty was caused by bad character. Social Security was originally sold as an insurance scheme in which workers funded their own retirement. Perkins, like most other Americans at that time, accepted the older distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, a distinction based on moral conduct.
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State governments gradually loosened welfare eligibility standards and increased benefit levels during the s and s, but it was not until the mids that welfare was officially conceived as a right that could be demanded by anyone in need, regardless of conduct or circumstances. Before , most Americans believed that property rights and the marriage-based family were the most effective means to get people out of poverty. After , government policy and elite opinion turned against the older view. In order to help the poor, government raised taxes on the working poor.
A journey through a land of extreme poverty: welcome to America
In the name of safety and environmentalism, it set up licensing requirements and regulations that make it harder for the poor to go into business building houses, repairing air conditioners, exterminating insects, fixing cars, or running a store or restaurant. Local governments set up building codes that were meant to guarantee safe dwellings and businesses but which deprive the poor of inexpensive housing.
Code requirements drive up the costs of new houses by tens of thousands of dollars. The city of Dallas, Texas, demolished over a thousand private homes between and , most of them in low-income and minority areas, sending previous residents onto the welfare rolls or into the streets as homeless. The most destructive feature of the post approach has been its unintentional promotion of family breakdown, which is a recipe for the neglect and abuse of children, the widespread crime that such abuse fosters, the impoverishment of women and children, and the loneliness and anguish of everyone involved.
Among the reasons that people get married and stay married or used to are happiness, mutual usefulness, a sense of moral obligation, and the penalty of shame and the law for those who misbehave.