Arts, Culture & Humanities

The history of caring in America

Claude Fischer

Who Cares book cover“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.

Politics and Caring

Newman and Jacobs draw on early survey research and on archives of letters to government officials to show how much hostility Roosevelt’s programs faced. In the late 1930s, when the real unemployment rate was still about one-in-eight, about half of Americans wanted to cut federal relief spending. Letter-writers not only complained bitterly about lazy people being “on the dole,” many considered even the New Deal work projects – projects that involved everything from cleaning park trails to building libraries – as make-work for the shiftless. They also complained that spending for these purposes was draining taxpayers and creating insurmountable debt.

WPA sewer workers

WPA sewer workers

FDR’s team made sure that their proposals would be seen as providing “insurance” for workers, not as providing support to people as a human right (as the Europeans did). Thus, for example, old age support came largely in the form of Social Security, something that looked like a pension workers had earned, not a universal benefit for all the needy elderly.

In the mid-1960s, Newman and Jacobs show, even as Johnson pushed taxpayer-financed health care for the elderly (Medicare), as well as jobs programs and other elements of his “War on Poverty,” public support for such initiatives was moving in the opposite direction. “Welfare” – meaning financial assistance to poor mothers with children – became anathema. (In the early 1970s, 86% of respondents to one poll agreed that “There is more concern today for the welfare bum who doesn’t want to work than for the hard working person . . . .”) Ironically, despite majority opposition to Richard Nixon’s plan for a guaranteed annual income (Yes, Nixon’s plan!), one of the most effective anti-poverty measures did pass in the 1970s: the earned income tax credit which supplements the income of low-wage earners.

Thus, the historical story Newman and Jacobs tell is one of popular antipathy to welfare expansion in the United States – even for programs that later became staples of American society. And that antipathy is rooted in concern that “undeserving” people will live on the tax money extracted from the deserving. Sound familiar?

And the antipathy goes back further.

Caring for Our Own?

A conventional reply to much of this story is to state that, back before the national government got involved in caring for the needy, we Americans took care of our own, neighbor-to-neighbor. Some argue that the government’s involvement actually sapped Americans’ personal care of the needy. That’s not what the historical record shows. (See Ch. 2 of Made in America for details.)

Yes, in 18th and 19th century America, neighbors and, importantly, fellow church-members did pitch in to help friends, family, and co-congregants out in hard times. But that help was typically circumscribed: If the needy person was a “respectable,” long-term member of the community who was suffering due to no fault of his or her own – say, orphaned by an accident – then help came. If, on the other hand, the needy person was relatively new to town or marginal (say, a recently emancipated servant or slave), or had some flaw, such as a tendency to drink, then help was not forthcoming. In the colonial era, many towns “warned out” the poor, basically sending them back to the towns from which they had come. For example, Charleston, SC, in the 1770s explicitly excluded from public assistance immigrants from France, Ireland, Germany, and the neighboring colonies; also migrants from other Carolina towns; and families of men who were in the Revolutionary army. As the poor congregated in the growing cities during the early 19th century, punitive attitudes and measure grew yet harsher.

For those who did get help, it was often in the form of providing cheap labor to a local family. For example, Chauncey Jerome, who grew up to be a noted clockmaker, recalled in his memoirs the death of his father in 1804:

The day of his death was a sad one for me, for I knew I would lose my happy home, and be obliged [at age 11] to leave it to seek work for my support. . . . [P]oor boys were obliged to let themselves to the farmers, and it was extremely difficult to find a place to live where they would treat a poor boy like a human being. . . . I knew that the rest of the family had got to leave soon, and I perhaps never to see any of them again.

Neighbor-to-neighbor charity did not usually provide the objects of charity with dignity and autonomy.

Caring Developments

Americans have clearly resisted the notion of helping those whom they considered to be the “undeserving” poor. The undeserving certainly included any man – and more recently, any woman, too – who was healthy enough to work. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, Newman and Jacobs point out, critics of the New Deal claimed that anyone could find work if he really wanted to, that the relief rolls were full of malingerers. Other needy people, also, raised suspicions that they were undeserving – blacks, immigrants, strangers, unattached women, people who seemed insufficiently dutiful, and so on.

Yet historians note that this orientation has changed over the centuries. While majorities of Americans still reject European notions of universal rights to health, housing, jobs, and income, most Americans have accepted – in fits and starts, to be sure – a more expansive sense of who are the deserving and what they deserve.breakfast line of children Old people deserve financial support and medical treatment  – not to mention discounts on all sorts of services and taxes – because they (presumably) earned it by decades of earlier, honest work. Poor children deserve food stamps and school breakfasts, because they are innocents poor by no fault of their own. Injured workers deserve disability pay. Even people who get “welfare” are allowed the sorts of normal accouterments of life others have, such as telephones and televisions. And so on. Moreover, this help is usually provided nowadays without requiring the head-bowing, foot-shuffling self-abasement that receiving help required generations ago. Who is worth caring about is still an issue, but there has been an evolution.

For all of today’s grumbling about loafers and leeches – and about the costs of social support programs – American institutions and practices today actually display more caring than was true generations ago. We are a bit closer to following the directive I started this post with and this one I close with: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not finish off the edge of your field in your reaping, nor gather the gleanings of your harvest. For the poor and for the sojourner you shall leave them” (Lev. 23:22, Alter trans.).

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.


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Comments to "The history of caring in America":
    • Ella

      Although ‘Made in America’ may be an antiquated expression, it seems on a superficial level we (Americans) value hard work and the ‘can do spirit’. And despite the fact that accidents happen, people make mistakes, or may get ill we make few allowances for those in need-except when it happens to us.

      After we have experienced one of life’s little surprises,and recovered, righted the wrong or at least realize things are not as bad as before and if we stayed open to the lesson, we achieve a glimmer of compassion and empathy.

      [Report abuse]

    • nicholas

      Although “Made in America" may be an archaic expression, it seems on a superficial level, we (Americans) the value of hard work and can do spirit. " And despite the fact that accidents happen, people make mistakes or fall sick, we make some adjustments for the needy, except when it comes to us. After we experienced one of the surprises of life, and recovered and sent the wrong or at least realize things are not as bad as before and if we stayed open to the lesson, we gain a glimpse of sympathy and empathy.

      [Report abuse]

    • Ella

      Although ‘Made in America’ may be an antiquated expression, it seems on a superficial level we (Americans) value hard work and the ‘can do spirit’. And despite the fact that accidents happen, people make mistakes, or may get ill we make few allowances for those in need-except when it happens to us.

      After we have experienced one of life’s little surprises,and recovered, righted the wrong or at least realize things are not as bad as before and if we stayed open to the lesson, we achieve a glimmer of compassion and empathy.

      [Report abuse]

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