The Poor in America before the Welfare State

A common complaint in today’s society is the excessive growth of the welfare state. According to those who offer this complaint, the welfare state refers to the many entitlement programs which provide taxpayer-funded relief to needy individuals and families, the disabled, and the elderly. To many these programs have become an essential part of a well-ordered society, to the point that calls for diminishing their financial support are dismissed as cruel, unethical and unworkable. A look back at the history of poverty relief in the U.S. however suggests that government welfare has not always been considered to play such an integral role.

America’s first settlers and Founders were certainly not oblivious to the problems of poverty, nor were they callous in their treatment of it. Yet they explicitly urged its alleviation by means other than the federal government. This ideology was concisely expressed by James Madison, who declared that "Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government." And Ben Franklin once stated, "the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it."

Giving the poor a hand up rather than a hand out continued beyond the Founding era through a variety of private organizations and charities known as mutual aid societies. After visiting America in the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville made note of this phenomenon when he wrote, "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. ... Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association."

These types of organizations originally opposed a government-run, government-funded welfare state because they viewed mutual aid as an expression of independence and personal responsibility. With dues from members, they provided services such as unemployment insurance, workers compensation, health insurance, life insurance, and sick pay. In many cases, a fraternal society would hire a doctor to care for the members' families giving them access to reliable, inexpensive healthcare. Additionally, these organizations established a privatized safety net through orphanages, hospitals, and homes for the elderly.

Contrary to the major problems of fraud encountered in contemporary government-based welfare programs, the early American versions of mutual aid societies maintained an ethical organization by policing their own members to ensure benefits went to those who were legitimately in need. Such societies were also strict in their membership, permitting admittance not only by character but often by sex and race. However, this did not stop people of all demographics from starting mutual aid societies. There were societies for men, women, African Americans, Hispanics, Polish, German, Jewish, and others.

In addition to mutual aid societies, there were also missions, churches, and other private relief agencies. These organizations operated on the generosity of volunteers and benefactors ready and willing to give help to those truly in need and incapable of supporting themselves. Instead of freely doling out aid however, these types of organizations often encouraged work in return for assistance in order to avoid promoting idleness. Furthermore, this approach to relief sought to encourage "accountability" and address the "root problems" underlying an individual’s impoverished state.

Emergencies also tended to be handled through private charity. A notable example occured in 1871 when a fire tore through Chicago leaving 300,000 of its citizens without housing, basic necessities or work. Mayor Roswell B. Mason took measures to keep peace in the city both economically and socially. Donations poured in from around the country to the city, but the mayor did not place the city in charge of these funds. Rather he gave control of the relief effort over to the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, a private charity organization. Within two weeks Mayor Mason declared that work was available to almost everyone including the boys in the city and that aid was only to be given to those who were incapable of taking care of themselves. 

Although private organizations were the main source of charity in America's early years, the government did offer a bit of aid for the poor in the form of poorhouses. According to one source, "Poorhouses were tax-supported residential institutions to which people were required to go if they could not support themselves." Due to the allegedly poor living and working conditions, poorhouses were typically viewed with fear and dread by those with minimal incomes, and many did everything they could to avoid them.

Poorhouses eventually faded from view, but government support of the poor did not. Although the private approach to poverty alleviation was often quite successful, the advent of the Great Depression began to slowly increase the federal government's role in poverty relief. Franklin Roosevelt, who once adamantly declared that government relief was a "narcotic," aggressively pursued a "New Deal" designed to raise living standards for the poor and middle class. FDR later presented a "second Bill of Rights" which stated that every American had a "right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation" and a "right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment."

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society officially ushered in the modern welfare state with his declared war on poverty. Although this move did not eliminate private charity, it gradually created a national mentality that government should be counted on to provide for the poor, elderly, and disabled. As a result, dependence and spending on government relief has skyrocketed in recent decades.

Today, with America's national debt increasing at a rapid rate, many wonder how the government can continue to maintain the many welfare programs it has established. Others outright question whether or not the government's approach to welfare is effective and efficient at alleviating poverty at all.

With that in mind, this topic explores the history and philosophical basis of poverty relief in America before the advent of the welfare state, and provides discussions of how these lessons from the past might serve to inform aid for those in need in the future.

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"Marvin Olasky believes that the present American poverty programs and welfare system have failed, not only in terms of money squandered, but also in regard to human souls corrupted and national character corroded. As a Christian, he argues for a biblical model for fighting poverty. In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Olasky develops this argument historically, by chronicling and...

Working class families had a 'safety net' long before Uncle Sam became involved. ... Millions of workers belonged to 'friendly societies.

Poorhouses were tax-supported residential institutions to which people were required to go if they could not support themselves.

"Today, we are constantly being told, the United States faces a health care crisis. Medical costs are too high, and health insurance is out of reach of the poor. The cause of this crisis is never made very clear, but the cure is obvious to nearly everybody: government must step in to solve the problem.

Eighty years ago, Americans were also told that their nation was facing a health care...

From biblical Israel to pre-New Deal America, the principles of individual self-help and communal self-sufficiency were the essence of both the Jewish view of charity and the evolving Jewish philanthropic tradition.

"On the face of it, a historical study of fraternal societies seems to be a subject fit only for connoisseurs of the arcane. Few Americans these days come into contact with such groups. When many of us hear the word lodge, we think of it as a place where television characters from our youth, such as Ralph Kramden (of the Loyal Order of Raccoons) and Fred Flintstone (of the Loyal Order of Water...

Early in our nation’s history, Americans—farmers, laborers, merchants, and manufacturers alike—understood that charity was the responsibility and privilege of individuals and religious organizations.

"Despite the impressive research by Marvin Olasky, Carolyn Weaver, and other scholars on the role played by voluntary institutions in the history of American social welfare, old attitudes still retain a powerful hold. A case in point is an article in U.S. News & World Report entitled the 'Myths of Charity.' The authors conclude that it 'is highly doubtful that charities could pick up all...

"Poverty and poor relief, especially in times of acute food shortages, were major challenges facing Virginia and Confederate authorities during the American Civil War (1861–1865). At first, most Confederates were confident that hunger would not be a problem for their nation. Southern farms and black slaves were expected to produce ample quantities of food while white men fought to secure...

Conventional wisdom holds that fighting poverty has only lately been a concern of American presidents, and that before Franklin Roosevelt it was hardly a concern at all. This stubborn error persists.

"The theme of this study is the conquest of poverty, not its 'abolition.' Poverty can be alleviated or reduced, and in the Western world in the last two centuries it has been almost miraculously alleviated and reduced; but poverty is ultimately individual, and individual poverty can no more be "abolished" than disease or death can be abolished.

Individual or family poverty results when...

The destitute were not always dependent on tax-tainted welfare. For many centuries, patronage of the poor by the well-to do was a voluntary act dictated exclusively by personal motivations.

"'I wish the Constitution was not so vague,' one of my daughters said. My first reaction to that was to deny that the document is particularly vague or, for that matter, obscure.

'Why,' she persisted, 'does it contain a clause on the general welfare?' Actually, her question was a good one, and it gave point to her observation on the vagueness of the Constitution, if, as I think, I know...

"There have always been people who for one reason or other -- inability to find a job, old age, disability, racism, sexism, drug addiction -- have been unable to cobble together the means to support themselves. For most of the nation's history, and for all of its colonial past, those people have been dealt with much differently than they were following the enactment of the New Deal, and, in...

The tension between the original version of the welfare state, which is stern and dedicated to fostering self-reliance, and a later, gentler version, which values protection above all, continues to dominate our politics.

"Many people think life without the welfare state would be chaos. In their minds, nobody would help support the less fortunate, and there would be riots in the streets. Little do they know that people found innovative ways of supporting each other before the welfare state existed. One of the most important of these ways was the mutual-aid society."

"It’s not the only anti-poverty program that seems to be growing like Topsy while accomplishing little. The federal government currently runs over 70 different means-tested programs providing cash, food, housing, medical care and social services to poor and low-income persons. They cost nearly $1 trillion per year — more than the 2009 stimulus package and no more successful."

"A recent television commercial promoted a popular fast food chain as a caring firm, worthy of our patronage, by showing that the company employs workers with Downs Syndrome at its restaurants. Indeed, in today’s world an organization that treats mildly retarded persons as contributing members of society, and helps them to support themselves financially, is noteworthy. Yet in earlier times the...

Chart or Graph

Some might argue that much of this increase was due to growth in the population, but the U.S. population grew by only 50 percent during this period. Total inflation-adjusted welfare spending per person increased more than eightfold over the period, rising from $284 per person in 1964 to $2,349 per person in 2008.

The figures for public outdoor relief are exact and of value, but those for private relief are of necessity too inexact to serve as a basis for close comparisons between the different cities.

Analysis Report White Paper

I intend to address poverty and almsgiving not merely by compiling random biblical passages that appear germane to the topic, but rather by tracing the germane ideas in their historical settings.

In 1841, when the members of the Society marched in the Boston funeral procession in honor of President Harrison, the Society was recognized as the oldest charitable society in the United States.

"Is the 'ancient history' of 1904-1965 American poverty lines relevant to poverty definition and measurement today? I believe that it is because I look at the drawing of poverty lines as a social process--not merely a technical economic exercise."

Essays on the history of Britain's welfare system, public and private.

"Mutual aid was one of the cornerstones of social welfare in the United States until the early 20th century. The fraternal society was a leading example. The statistical record of fraternalism was impressive. A conservative estimate is that one-third of adult American males belonged to lodges in 1910. A fraternal analogue existed for virtually every major service of the modern welfare state...

This paper draws on speeches and statements from the Founders and various 19th century presidents to form a cohesive view of poverty in the early years of the Republic.

Social scientists, especially sociologists and economists, are paying increasing attention to the concept of social capital.

"The task of meeting life-or-death needs and of finding employment for [the Chicago fire] victims fell largely to one charity, the Chicago Relief and Aid Society. How it responded is a very interesting story.""

"Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, government has spent vast sums on welfare or aid to the poor; however, the aggregate cost of this assistance is largely unknown because the spending is fragmented into myriad programs."

While the poverty guidelines are issued by HHS, the other version of the poverty measure — the poverty thresholds — are issued nowadays by the Census Bureau.

In the 1820s there were many paupers who, unable or unwilling to find work, looked to the towns where they found themselves for support.

"By narrowing opportunities for personal idealism in the service of others, the welfare state has eroded the sense of personal responsibility and mutual obligation on which a resilient civil society rests."

This article explores the rural poor relief system of colonial South Carolina. It finds that poor relief was substantially more generous and more readily available in rural areas of South Carolina than elsewhere in British North America, or indeed in the entire Anglophone world.

The distinction between the compulsory and the voluntary is between that which is prescribed and enforced by public authority and that which is left to the ini­tiative of individuals and groups.

"Long before Charles Murray took on the topic, Henry Hazlitt wrote an outstanding book on poverty that not only provided an empirical examination of the problem but also presented a rigorous theory for understanding the relationship between poverty and income growth."

"Economic scholarship as old as that of Malthus seems to support such a promise from welfare abolition."

"[F]raternal orders (which also included women’s organizations) were an enormous social force among American working people in the first half of the 20th Century—nearly as significant as labor unions."

This book describes early colonial approaches to charity. Miller also explains the various legal applications and standards relating to charity and philanthropy during the early years of the American republic.

The growth of government has politicized life and weakened the nation' moral fabric. Government intervention—in the economy, in the community, and in society—has increased the payoff from political action and reduced the scope of private action.

This article uses primary source documents from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s to discuss women’s roles in the re-conceptualization of poverty in America.


This presentation discusses the connection and differences between the private, charitable giving in the early days of America and the governmental welfare regulation we have today.

Sheldon Richman, editor of The Freeman spoke to students attending Freedom University I. Mr. Richman discusses the role of mutual aid and private institutions as alternatives to government run welfare, social security and medicare programs.

Primary Document

Franklin D. Roosevelt address to the Democratic National Convention in acceptance of the Democratic Nomination. In this speech, he promises his "new deal for the American people."

Franklin D. Roosevelt's State of the Union address in 1941, also known as the Four Freedoms Speech.

"Be it enacted by the People of the State of New-York, represented in Senate and Assembly, That it shall be the duty of the board of supervisors of each county in this state, ... at their next meeting after the passing of this act, to direct the purchase of one or more tracts of land, not exceeding the quantity of two hundred acres, and thereon build and erect, for the accommodation,...

Written aboard the Arbella in 1630, John Winthrop's most famous sermon cites the Book of Matthew and man's logical nature as the source of a civilization that is new, unique, and divine. Preparing his Puritan followers for the society they must forge amidst difficult odds, Winthrop spoke of "A City upon a Hill" in their New England community.

"Warner's 'Charities' was the first attempt to cover systematically the field of American charities and to formulate, at the same time, the principles of relief which had been evolved from a century of benevolence. Since it was written,—and, in part, because it was written, — the horizon of charities has immensely widened; many valuable books dealing with special lines of charity have been...

"The Annals of Congress, formally known as The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, cover the 1st Congress through the first session of the 18th Congress, from 1789 to 1824. The Annals were not published contemporaneously, but were compiled between 1834 and 1856, using the best records available, primarily newspaper accounts. Speeches are paraphrased rather than...

This piece briefly describes the mutual aid societies formed by free blacks in the early years of American history. A variety of primary source documents relating to these societies are included in the text.

Tocqueville's famous analysis of the American economic and political system, as he observed during his travels of the country in the 1830s.

The Documentary History of Philanthropy and Voluntarism in the United States is a collection of edited primary documents, interpretive texts, and bibliographic references on the development of charities.

This piece describes Cotton Mather's approach to charity and philanthropy during the early years of the American Founding period.

The following Essays were first published by Dr. Cotton Mather, at Boston in New England, in the year 1710.

In this piece, Lyman Beecher declares that "The first way of doing good to the poor, aside from supplying their immediate necessities, is by executing the laws."

Coming from every section of our country, they bring with them the sentiments and the information of the whole, and will be enabled to give a direction to the public affairs which the will and the wisdom of the whole will approve and support.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's State of the Union address in 1941. In this speech, President Roosevelt outlines his "second Bill of Rights."

A large proportion of these unemployed and their dependents have been forced on the relief rolls. The burden on the Federal Government has grown with great rapidity.

The bill entitled 'An act making a grant of public lands to the several States for the benefit of indigent insane persons,' ... is returned to the Senate ... with a statement of the objections which have required me to withhold from it my approval.

Certain Senators have issued a public statement to the effect that unless the President and the House of Representatives agree to appropriations from the Federal Treasury for charitable purposes they will force an extra session of Congress.

This volume has been written for the purpose of giving the fraternal insurance world a convenient statement of its principles and plan of operation.

How the Other Half Lives together with its sequel Battle with the Slum reveal through Riis’s sensationalist prose and photography the appalling living conditions in the Lower East Side of turn-of-the-century New York City.

A letter from James Madison regarding some of the issues before congress at the time including the role of government. He goes on to expound on the original intent of government in relation to the general welfare clause.

A letter from James Madison which discusses the General Welfare clause of the Constitution.

Lyndon B. Johnson's State of the Union address in which he declares the War on Poverty.

"The following pages contain a copy of a printed paper attached to the original Petition of the members of the Fellowship Club to the Great and General Court of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, in New England, asking for an Act and a Charter of Incorporation by the name of Marine Society.

The paper was accidentally discovered in the State archives by Mr Samuel B Doggett, of Boston...

At this point, Tocqueville’s discussion of private charity as opposed to public relief takes on added significance, for it confirms one of the main themes of Democracy in America: the importance of civil society.

"This book was written to satisfy a want long felt in Odd Fellowship. Notwithstanding the existence of this Society since 1819, its history, aims, objects, and its extraordinary success in its peculiar work, are little understood by the community at large.

The membership itself is not as well informed upon these subjects as their great importance demands. For the first time access to...

"In short, sir, without going farther into the subject. Which I should not have here touched at all but for the reasons already mentioned, I venture to declare it as my opinion, that, were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established...

"To Messieurs the PUBLIC and CO. I am one of that class of people that feeds you all, and at present is abus'd by you all; -- in short I am a Farmer."

"Discontent with the achievements of civilization is a common and most hopeful symptom in the minds of most of us to-day. Mankind has won marvellous victories over nature and yet remains with an uneasy feeling that it is not a whit better off. We have linked together the uttermost ends of the earth with steamship lines and railways and telegraph wires, the wilderness has been made to blossom...

"The starting-point of all human activity is the existence of wants. To satisfy hunger and thirst, to secure shelter and to provide clothing were the chief aims of primitive man, and constitute even to-day the motor forces of all society. As man develops, his wants grow in number and refinement. However civilized he becomes, his material welfare forms the basis on which the whole larger life...

I have compiled this little book because I believe some such restatement of the principles upon which the Modern methods of Charity are based is needed.

Autobiography of John D. Rockefeller.

Since the task assigned to the Committee was to inquire into changing trends, the result is emphasis on elements of instability rather than stability in our social structure.

This study is the latest and most comprehensive of a series, some of them governmental and others privately sponsored, beginning in 1921 with the report on 'Waste in Industry' under my chairmanship.

A compilation of statistics and studies made by the New Hampshire Bureau of Labor.

How the Other Half Lives together with its sequel Battle with the Slum reveal through Riis’s sensationalist prose and photography the appalling living conditions in the Lower East Side of turn-of-the-century New York City.

Since June, 1911, it has been the privilege of the writer to visit from time to time a number of Charity Organization Societies including those on the Pacific Coast and in the South as well as many in the East and Middle West.

The historical records of the Scot's Charitable Society.

"The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution is a five-volume collection compiled by Jonathan Elliot in the mid-nineteenth century. The volumes remain the best source for materials about the national government's transitional period between the closing of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787 and the opening of the First Federal Congress...

The industrial and social progress of the nineteenth century has led to an enormous increase of wealth and to a higher average standard of both efficiency and comfort.

Does generous municipal outdoor relief spread the burden of caring for the poor upon all the taxpayers, and so relieve private charity? Or does it develop such an appetite for aid that the need of private charity is increased rather than lessened?

The previous section of this paper stated the private and public outdoor relief of the forty largest cities of the United States.

This document provides a brief historical analysis on charity and then includes the text of the 1601 English Poor Law.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Milligan in which Jefferson discusses a book he is translating. Among other things he discusses the concept of government mediated redistribution of wealth.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper. Jefferson discusses economic issues of the country at the time as well as the role of government.

"CALLED upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country, I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awful...

The English statute, 43d Elizabeth, gives validity, to some devises to charitable uses, which were not valid independent of that statute.

This book provides information on incidents in the early years of Jane Addams' "Hull-House," a well known American charity in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Members of Congress wanted to help suffering farmers in the American West, but Cleveland rejected their bill, citing the limited mission of the general government and arguing that private charity ... should furnish the necessary aid.

Donations for the establishment of colleges, schools, and seminaries of learning, and especially such as are for the education of orphans and poor scholars, are charities in the sense of the common law.

Notably absent from the Articles is any notion of voluntary activity: all is dictated from and by the government, including religious obligations. Charity as a personal or Christian attribute goes unmentioned.

"The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship. The conditions of human life have not only been changed, but revolutionized, within the past few hundred years. In former days there was little difference between the dwelling, dress, food, and environment of the chief and those...




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The reality is that most students (and people for that matter) won't speak out. It's called human nature and it was recognized in the Declaration of Independence: "...all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." While you might feel alone when debating a teacher,...
In the land of the free and the home of the brave, speech codes are a particularly odious example of politically correct repression on many a college campus. In some ways, college campuses are the least free places for thinking and speech in America. Your best friend for fighting your school's repressive speech codes is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Here's a short clip...
Running for office isn't easy, even in college. Not everyone is cut out for it, either. For those of you who are, this completely non-partisan section is for you. If you are inclined to pursue student government, we're not going to spend time on telling you how to get elected. A good place to go for ideas and training is Rather, we want to help you in office, as a believer in...