Americans generally believe that the government should not take money from one person to give to another and generally believe that only recently – perhaps just since the 1960s or since the New Deal – has government done so. Consistent with these views, American “welfare” policy is distinctively limited, constrained, and grudging. Yet history shows that American government, notably the federal government, has for centuries used taxpayers’ money to help other people – for example, to assist businessmen with subsidies of various kinds and to provide large pensions for widows of Union Army veterans. Indeed, even a couple of centuries ago, Congress sent large sums of what we would today call “foreign aid” abroad. Two recent books clarify this seeming contradiction between American ideology and practice by showing that whether government helps or not depends not so much on principles of taxation and representation, but on whether those who are helped are seen as blameless or not.
Stanford law professor Michele Landis Dauber, in her 2013 book, The Sympathetic State, recounts the legislative history of federal relief programs, and Northwestern historian Susan J. Pearson, in her 2100 book, The Rights of the Defenseless, describes the evolution of anti-cruelty legislation. Both accounts revolve crucially around principles of self-reliance and responsibility.
It is the moral logic of blame, Dauber writes, that allowed Massachusetts Governor William Weld in 1995 to sign a bill sharply curtailing assistance to poor single mothers and to also simultaneously ask the federal government for millions in direct payments to the state’s fishermen. The arguments over both moves were arguments about blame and blamelessness.
Americans Give a Hand
Dauber reports an under-appreciated fact in The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State: Since the start of the Republic, Congress has spent taxpayer money, on a case-by-case basis, to assist victims of disasters “following events such as the Whiskey Rebellion; the slave insurrection in St. Domingo; and various fires, floods, and storms” (p. 5). Congress sent money to both Americans and foreigners – for example, in the 1810s, to victims of earthquakes in Missouri and in Venezuela; in the 1860s, to “sufferers” in the South and in France. Repeatedly, arguments in Congress over who should get help revolved around whether the recipients were or were not blameless victims of circumstances beyond their control. Some cases were ambiguous: Were drought-hit farmers blameless victims of weather or should they have planned for dry years? If the latter, then they were unworthy of help. In this context, the simply unemployed and the poor surely did not qualify; they were, lawmakers assumed, mostly responsible for their circumstances.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into office in 1933 and initiated huge relief programs, he and his staff defended the Depression-fighting spending as simply an extension of this long-standing national policy of helping people who were hit by disasters. To make their argument about precedents work, the New Dealers had to emphasize that home, farm, and job losses from “The Depression” were just like ones from a natural disaster. Proponents tried to distinguish these initiatives from “socialistic” European programs that gave people citizens rights to government support.
Dauber fascinatingly documents the various ways that agents of the administration sought to define the recipients of aid as blameless victims. The New Dealers categorized “The Depression” as a universal disaster, as an “economic earthquake.” They made explicit comparisons to earlier disaster relief in defending the constitutionality of their own. And they used image-makers to shape popular opinion. Dauber describes how photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), whose images were widely distributed, framed their subjects so as to suggest innocence, earnestness, victimization, and a common fate – as in images of long lines of men outside an employment office or the classic “migrant mother” with her suffering children. Moreover, the FSA avoided distributing pictures of blacks, less the message of blamelessness be undermined by racial prejudice. Similarly, John Steinbeck crafted The Grapes of Wrath, a big hit both as a novel and a movie in the 1930s, to avoid any implication that the Joads had brought their suffering on themselves. (In another part of her study, Dauber recounts how Americans writing to Eleanor Roosevelt for help were careful to explain that they were hard-working middle-class folk down on their luck and not long-term poor.) Opponents of the New Deal addressed their arguments to the same moral concern, describing the recipients, even white “Oakies,” as blameworthy and therefore, unlike flood or tornado victims, illegitimate claimants on taxpayers’ money.
This moral issue, Dauber argues, still frames our policy debates today.
Pearson’s topic, The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America, would seem to be a separate subject, but there are important resonances. Pearson tells the story of how reform movements in the 19th century pressed state governments to pass and enforce laws against cruelty to animals and to children. These “humane” movements, such as the SPCA, rose on the tide of an emerging middle-class culture of sensitivity and sympathy. People who are refined and moral, that culture holds, feel the pain of the injured defenseless – of, for example, horses mistreated by teamsters and farm animals shackled, of abused infants and children sent out on the streets to beg, and, before 1865, of slaves brutalized by their owners. In response to these sentiments and movements, state governments made acting cruelly a punishable crime.
(How could cruelty not be a crime?, a 21st-century reader might ask. The dominant world view before this development, and in many places long after it, held that animals, children, and slaves – and often wives, too – were a patriarch’s private property and he had the right to do with his property as he wished, even inflict injury. No longer.)
The key to mobilizing public opinion, Pearson argues, was emphasizing the pain of those who could not defend themselves. Even abolitionism advanced mainly by stressing the suffering of slaves – rather than, say, their rights to freedom as humans. (Similarly, the reformers did not seek to “free” animals or children, just to end their pain.) Reformers were the voice of those who could not speak or act for themselves, those who therefore bore no blame for their condition. Although anti-cruelty activists connected with other sorts of social reformers, the humane movements were not mainly about the suffering of, say, factory workers or immigrants. They were about the suffering of blameless innocents.
When Governor Weld requested emergency aid for fishermen who faced economic ruin because fish stocks had declined, he described the depletion as a natural disaster. Opponents of that aid claimed that the fishermen should not get the food stamps, unemployment checks, low-cost loans, and such that Weld requested because they had over-fished the the local waters. They were blameworthy and therefore help-unworthy. It is a centuries-old debate in America.