Nov 16, 2016

Clifford Thies on the 19th century private welfare system vs. the 20th century welfare state

The 19th century welfare system was privately supplied, much more efficient, and more compassionate, for society as well as the poor. Instead of giving away cash and other benefits, it mandated work and responsibility. In the 19th century, the poor were divided into three groups: 1) those who worked and were given supplemental assistance through private charity; 2) those who were manifestly incapable of working and who were sent into poorhouses; and 3) those who were capable of working but refused to do so. The latter were called “paupers,” people who lived from hand-to-mouth, and were drifters, alcoholics, beggars, and thieves. The social welfare system effectively (although not of course perfectly) identified them as the undeserving poor and denied them help. Through poorhouses, and other extremely limited programs, charity provided only for those manifestly unable to work. Poorhouses were usually private institutions, sometimes no more than a family with a large house, which, for a fee, took care of the mentally and physically ill, the enfeebled aged, and orphans who could not be placed for adoption. Conditions in those poorhouses were minimal (although better than depicted by the left-wing Charles Dickens). Accordingly, the able-bodied poor tried to stay out of the poorhouse.


Going to the poorhouse meant trading liberty for subsistence… The stark terms of the deal offered by the poorhouse was no bargain, as was intended… Private charities demanded that those would could work, do so. Their programs were not “anti-poverty” but “anti-pauper.”


Very few single women were able to raise their children without continuing help, and most eventually married. At the same time, however, the case of unwed motherhood led to a decoupling of welfare and work. In 1911 Illinois adopted the first “mothers’ aid” program and by 1928, 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Alaska and Hawaii had followed this lead. Modest at first, they made a step towards replacing the 19th century, work-based philosophy with a new “scientific,” income-based one. Today, income is no longer dependent on work, nor is assistance based on charity. There is no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. There is no effort to provide the proper incentives. But this should be no surprise. By its nature, government is unable to do much more than dish out money to people who meet the standards set by the application process, regardless of their intent or prospects. Press group politics, moreover, has turned a permanent income combined with perpetual laziness into a civil right.


Government welfare has encouraged the worst vices of the poor, turning even able-bodied people into drifters, alcoholics, drug addicts, beggars, and thieves. In short, the poor have become paupers, the group the 19th century charity theorists identified as not deserving of support… In fact, the situation is much worse than the 19th century charity theorists predicted. The primary victims, ironically, have been unmarried mothers and their children, the supposed beneficiaries of the early 20th century reform movement.

~ Clifford F. Thies, "Bring Back the Poorhouse and the Workhouse," The Free Market, October 1992

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