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

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

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

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

Synopsis

In 1996, America abolished its long-standing welfare system in favor of a new and largely untried public assistance program. Welfare as we knew it arose in turn from a previous generation's rejection of an even earlier system of aid. That generation introduced welfare in order to eliminate orphanages.

This book examines the connection between the decline of the orphanage and the rise of welfare. Matthew Crenson argues that the prehistory of the welfare system was played out not on the stage of national politics or class conflict but in the micropolitics of institutional management. New arrangements for child welfare policy emerged gradually as superintendents, visiting agents, and charity officials responded to the difficulties that they encountered in running orphanages or creating systems that served as alternatives to institutional care.

Crenson also follows the decades-long debate about the relative merits of family care or institutional care for dependent children. Leaving poor children at home with their mothers emerged as the most generally acceptable alternative to the orphanage, along with an ambitious new conception of s

Excerpt

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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