Current Push to End Welfare Not the First, Historian Says

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Historians take the long view on things. James T. Patterson, keynoter at a conference on private charity and public welfare that ended Saturday at St. Louis University, drew some striking parallels between early 19th-century England and late 20th-century America in movements to roll back welfare relief for the poor.

Attitudes and laws in both countries have tended to stigmatize the poor and "blame the victim," he said.

The current push by most Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, to "end welfare as we know it" has its counterpart in English Parliament's Act of 1834, said Patterson, who teaches American history at Brown University in Providence, R.I. His book "Grand Expectations: The U.S. 1945-74," published this year, deals with many of the issues of the present welfare reform debate.

Patterson spoke Thursday to about 60 historians and social scientists gathered for the three-day meeting.

The 1834 act, Patterson said, amended the generous Elizabethan poor laws by cutting back cash relief for the "unworthy" poor and forcing them into the workhouses and almshouses familiar to readers of Charles Dickens. The rationale was economic: to induce the spongers to look for work and thereby cut the costs of public relief.

But social and moral fears in both eras probably have been more important than economic ones, Patterson said. Welfare rollback would restore the work ethic and personal morality, it was argued - then and now. The reform coalition in the 1820s and '30s included many evangelicals who worried about the morals of the poor and grew alarmed that women were moving into the new industrial work, damaging family life.

"In our own times, concerns about the `traditional' family have darkened the mood of rollback," Patterson observed. "Here, too, religious ideas have figured prominently in debates. In both eras, morally concerned people insisted that the poor must somehow be induced to behave in proper fashion. …