Posts Tagged ‘welfare’

In the debates over social policies, one often hears historical claims roughly along these lines: “Minorities these days want it easy. When my ancestors came they got no help and just did it on their own.” Arguments like this have been raised against programs designed to help African Americans. In his classic 1981 study, A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants Since 1880, Stanley Lieberson showed that, however hard many of the European immigrants had it a century or so ago, they faced nothing like the discrimination and repression American blacks did; the comparison is a false one.

Bread Line, Bowery, NY, c. 1910 (source)

Bread Line, Bowery, NY City, c. 1910 (source)

Today’s debates over immigrant policy evoke similar sorts of historical assertions: that unlike immigrants today, immigrants of the past were legal, learned English, and took no handouts on their route to the American Dream. In fact, however, many immigrants in earlier periods were allowed across the border with little regulation and many others were indeed illegal. (Arthur Miller’s classic play, A View from the Bridge, is about “undocumented” Italian immigrants to the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the 1950s.) In an earlier post, I discussed how immigrants a century ago actually learned English more slowly than immigrants do today. As to “handouts,” Cybelle Fox in a recent article and in her well-received 2012 book, Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal, shows that we’ve misunderstood the welfare history, too. The Europeans got many a hand up.


Read Full Post »

To the Poorhouse

As the presidential campaigns turns into the home stretch, we realize that we have not heard much about the poor and policy toward the poor. The problems of the middle class – including their fear of joining the poor – is everyone’s focus; that’s where the votes are. But arguments about policies toward the poor will return; the controversy is an American perennial.

Boston Almshouse 1825 (source)

Central to the contentiousness is figuring out what the key principle of American poverty policy ought to be: Is it Christian charity, which implies simply feeding the hungry and clothing the naked? Or, is it moral rehabilitation, which implies teaching the poor “to fish” for themselves and letting those who won’t learn sink? Or is it economic efficiency, which implies keeping the poor alive but at minimum cost to the taxpayer?

Two recent papers in The Journal of the Early Republic illuminate these concerns in an era when assistance to the poor was much more constricted, more focused on the very worst off, more punitive, and concentrated on placing the poor in their own, collective home: the almshouse.


Read Full Post »

Caring More or Less

“Should there be a pauper among you . . . you shall not harden your heart and clench your hand against your brother the pauper. But you shall surely open your hand to him . . . .” (Deut. 15:7-8; Alter trans.). A recurrent question about modern America is to what extent we have adhered to this and similar admonitions to care for “the least of these.”

The question is prompted by a new book from Katherine Newman and Elisabeth Jacobs, Who Cares?: Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age. Newman and Jacobs present evidence that now widely-hailed parts of the safety net woven during the New Deal (particularly poor relief,  job creation, and old age support) and then during the Great Society (particularly Medicare and poverty programs) at the time faced considerable public ambivalence and even resistance. Roosevelt and Johnson just drove ahead anyway and later Americans were thankful that they did. One implication is that today’s backlash against the Obama health initiative is nothing new.

Another implication is that Americans’ caring for the “least” among them was not much more enthusiastic 50 or 80 years ago than it is now. Had Newman and Jacobs looked back farther back in time, they would have only reinforced their argument. It has always been hard for Americans to meet those religious injunctions.


Read Full Post »