Recent statements and attitudes from conservative politicians and their extremist factions couch their positions in such mean-spirited and biased ways that I am continually amazed that they seem so oblivious to the incongruity between their statements and attitudes and rationality and intelligence. I am most struck by how this is being played out around food stamps and the welfare system.
My perspective on the current political and economic attacks by the conservative Right, is a recognition that they are actually attacks on the the most commonly held tenets of American society. Those beliefs that most of us were raised to ascribe to America; fair play, opportunity, and justice.
Hmmm, let me rephrase, these current attacks should be understood as a continuation of attitudes and policies that have existed from the country’s earliest days -- from the colonial presence through revolution and nationhood. These policies and attitudes separate the wealthy from the poor in an attempt to eliminate from the American Democracy the influence of any except the monied - who consider themselves to be the “ruling class” and thereby entitled to dictate both the policies of the country and the behavior of others. Laws be damned.
As with all and everything in history, the evolution of notions of public welfare wind a long and circuitous road:
- The Code of Hammurabi, 1772 B.C.E. ("along with all that eye for an eye stuff"), called for not only the protection of widows and orphans, but protection for the weak against the strong.
- Roughly 14 centuries later, Aristotle opined that man as a social animal had to cooperate with and assist his fellow man.
- ‘Philanthropy,’ ‘charity’ and related terms are ancient Greek and Latin in origin.
- Within the Torah, Jewish doctrines teach the duty of giving, and, equally important the right of those in need to receive. (Here’s an aside: I found it really interesting that in this context, Christianity seems a move to acting out of service to the religion as opposed to acting out of individual responsibility.)
- Ecclesiastical and secular charity was linked by the European evolution from mutual aid through monastic structures to feudalism to guilds to hospitals (attached to monasteries) to municipal authorities.
Seems pretty good, huh? But, just like now, a change in societal fortunes brings about reactionary policy changes. The English Statute of Laborers in 1349 was very similar to “Jim Crow” laws without the racial implications, but complete with all of the control aspects. Then in 1531, a statute was enacted that set punishment for able-bodied beggars and designated areas for the needy in which they could beg. In 1536 and 1572, respectively, paid alms collectors and an Overseer of the Poor were established along with a tax to provide relief to the needy.
But, the most influential in what would become the United States was the English Poor Law of 1601. Along with mercantilism, this law set patterns that shifted policies in recognition that subsistence depended on employment, not labor itself. Willingness to work, did not guarantee wages.
But, remedy in the colonies - as in England, was a local matter. Very quickly more and more colonies at ports and small towns found there were more poor, many of whom were refugees from various wars and skirmishes, than the local coffers could assist. This created policies that set residency requirements for aid and punitive consequences for strangers and the able-bodied who were destitute, including banishment.
By 1700, the General Court of the English colonies had begun state aid, in whole or in part for the needy, and local communities were reimbursed for the relief of “unsettled persons” with contagious diseases (who could not be sent away).
The establishment of state aid was accompanied by changes in attitudes toward the needy. Poverty came to be thought of as a crime and voluntary idleness was regarded as a vice. Such that the poor were bound out as indentured servants, run out of town, or put in jail. Poor and illegitimate children were removed from recalcitrant parents and apprenticed, as were orphans. Work houses were rationalized as both morally therapeutic and beneficial to the economy.
What assistance there was for situations of obvious need was not available for Native Americans (who were being intentionally killed or starved) nor for Free Blacks, who were simply denied assistance. Slaves were considered the responsibility of masters and not of public concern.
Between 1700 and 1772, there was 1 pauper for every 4 free men in the colonies. Some were needy immigrants. Some were disabled soldiers or refugees from the frontier and Canada. Some were poor because of the seasonal nature of their jobs.
There were widows and orphans of seamen who died at sea. And, it is estimated that from one-third to one-half of all recorded first births resulted from pre-marital sexual intercourse, creating a rise in illegitimate children to be supported by public welfare.
Up to this point, poverty in England and the colonies was thought to be a part of the natural order. Remedies reflected this Calvinistic stance. But with the intellectual Enlightenment of the mid-18th century, as John Locke asserted counter to Calvinism, “poverty was not natural and incapable of being eradicated.” It was not something to be tolerated with stoicism and resignation.
With the emergence of the United States, “independence in the new world, where resources were abundant, offered Americans the opportunity, if not the obligation, to root out old errors and vices and erect a society which would be a beacon to the world. At the very least, if the independent republic and democratic rule were to endure, American citizens had to be exempt from such impediments as illiteracy, poverty, and distress to cast their ballots freely and rationally.”
In subsequent decades, American welfare policies and approaches have ebbed and flowed, mostly according to economic trends, and, reflective of biases that assign poverty, again, as the fault of the poor themselves and a demonstration of their lesser character, and, also as structures of control and societal manipulation.
It is a sad fact that the stereotypes around welfare recipients are outcomes of the cement-shoes of racism that we Americans abide. Would contemporary welfare approaches be different if the majority of Americans understood that the majority of welfare recipients are not people of color? Would approaches be different if poverty was not regarded as a willful act of the lazy, whatever their race?
Fundamental questions remain. Many of them are embedded in our economic system, where they are hard to pry out for examination. I much prefer the simple, common-sense approach.
Should American welfare policies be adopted so that citizens who are without wealth will be recognized as having the right to be healthy, happy, and secure? Perhaps the first step is to stop demonizing the poor and worshipping the wealthy. Perhaps we just need to enact those so very illusive American tenets: fair play, opportunity and justice.
 Trattner, Walter I., FROM POOR LAW TO WELFARE STATE: A History of Social Welfare in America, 1984.