In the 1800s most recipients of relief were widows, children, elderly, or the sick. Very few able-bodied men received help and most did only as a last resort during periods of unemployment. Even under such exceptional circumstances, many resented able-bodied men receiving help. Outdoor relief  soon gave way to workhouses and poorhouses.

These were not only less costly but offered the opportunity to place requirements on receiving support. Conditions were intentionally harsh in these institutions as to deter the vagrant from making a hammock out of a safety net.  In an important book, The Tragedy of American Compassion,  Marvin Olasky details the number of private relief efforts conducted mainly by people of faith. The major criteria for the effort was categorization, the distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.[1]

Importantly, no other constituency was more opposed to public relief than American blacks. In part due to discrimination in the South, blacks developed a sophisticated network of fraternal organizations and mutual aid societies. . In Philadelphia, for example, 80% of blacks belonged to a fraternal organization that provided health benefits, life insurance and many other benefits. The contempt of blacks toward the lazy and undeserving, and against efforts to help these, was remarkable. A manual of one fraternal organization, for example, read: “The sick among our brethren are not left to the cold hand of public charity; they are visited, and their wants provided for…without the humiliation of…individual relief—from which freeborn mind recoils with disdain.”[2]

In the 1830s, the government begins to get more involved in relief efforts. Charity began to be “professionalized” and handed more and more to “bureaucracies of compassion.” Later on, the New Deal involved Federal action in an irreversible way. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt expanded welfare rolls and other programs for the “poor.”  Southern whites got loans, blacks got “free cheese.” And we can go from there. A remarkable story of self-reliance transformed into a nightmare of dependency.


[1] See Michael Tanner, The Poverty of Welfare: Helping Others in Civil Society (Washington: Cato Institute, 2003) p. 15.

[2] Ibid., p. 21.

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