Cheering for a Team No Longer on the Field: Rhetoric and Reality in American Welfare History

By Levine, Daniel | Journal of Economic Issues, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Cheering for a Team No Longer on the Field: Rhetoric and Reality in American Welfare History


Levine, Daniel, Journal of Economic Issues


In an article in this journal in June 1998, William S. Kern argued that the welfare "reform" act of 1996, formally the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act, was in essence a return to the political economy of Poor Law Reform Act in Great Britain in 1834. Professor Kern asserted that an understanding of both acts means an understanding of the attitudes toward poverty of classical economists, particularly Thomas Malthus. [1] Certainly that article is correct as far as it goes. I would argue that a longer view gives a more differentiated, more optimistic--Kern might say a naively optimistic--conclusion.

As the millennium turned, we were all inundated with summations of this or that, lists of the "greatest" or the "most influential," or whatever. We can now also look back to see developments of the welfare state in the United States during the entire century. Is the era of big government really over? What we find, in fact, is that in spite of a drumbeat of rejection, the United States is, to a considerable degree, a welfare state, not so terribly different from those of Europe. Moreover, a welfare ideology is so deeply woven into the institutional, economic, intellectual, and political fabric of the United States that even the most individualistically minded cannot extract it, and American individualism, while still strong in some areas, is in relation to social welfare far more potent rhetorically than it is in fact.

Damning the welfare state is a staple in American politics, from Barry Goldwater in 1960 to talk radio every day. And we are not talking about fringe figures on the extremes of American politics, but a portion of the mainstream, representing many groups and not only within one political party. The question is whether they are representing anything more than nostalgia, whether they are cheering for a team that is not even on the field any more. Perhaps the very vehemence of the rhetoric is evidence that it is conscious of its own futility.

American rhetoric and reality at the beginning of the twentieth century--and before--was, as Kern implied, established by the English Poor Law Report of 1834. The "principles of '34" asserted that poor relief in general was a bad thing, for if people found that they could live without working they would do so and would be "pauperized." That word was not an economic measure, but a moral one: they would lose their character and self-respect. Therefore "all relief whatever to able-bodied persons or to their families, otherwise than in well regulated workhouses...shall be declared unlawful and shall cease." The Poor Law Commissioners of 1834 assumed that poverty was simply unwillingness to work; that charity created pauperism, not the reverse. [2]

These principles had greater force in the United States, both as rhetoric and reality, than they did in their country of origin. In the United States, the assumption of prosperity was so widely accepted that it almost did not need articulation. This assumption meant that reformers had to assert again and again that there was poverty--Look at it! Here it is!--a task that English or continental reformers did not face. And that assertion had to precede any discussion of what, if anything, should be done about it.

As in England, the major organized guardians of the "principles of '34" in the United States were the Charity Organization Societies. Entirely voluntary organizations, self-appointed, they regarded themselves as expert specialists. As doctors were specialists in their sort of illness, the members of the Charity Organization Societies were, they thought, specialists in their sort: poverty and charity. In the normal course of their work, they collected large amounts of data on the poor and seekers after charity. Their rigid defense of principle began to weaken during and after the depression of 1893-96.

For example, in 1894, at the lowest point in the depression, Amos G. …

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