Building the Invisible Orphanage: A Prehistory of the American Welfare System

By Matthew A. Crenson | Go to book overview
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Introduction

IN 1996, A DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENT and a Republican Congress found common cause in the abolition of welfare as we knew it, clearing the way for a new kind of welfare as yet mostly unknown. This is not the first time that Americans have scrapped a system of public assistance long in use for another largely untried. In fact, welfare as we have known it is rooted in a previous generation's rejection of an even earlier system of aid to the poor. They introduced welfare as a means to get rid of orphanages. And it is no coincidence that some recent critics of public assistance programs have proposed orphanages as a way to get rid of welfare -- a case of déjà vu in reverse.

This book examines the connection between the decline of the orphanage and the beginnings of welfare. It deals with an earlier generation's rejection of welfare as they knew it. In some respects, their story bears a striking resemblance to our own. Their debates, like ours, centered on the role of family in perpetuating or overcoming poverty, and like us they were especially concerned about children who grew up in single-parent households. Their deliberations, of course, carried them toward a different destination than ours. To avoid the orphanage, they invented the earliest prototypes of Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

In one sense, the abandonment of the orphanage was simply an early chapter in the larger story of deinstitutionalization, the process that re

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