Thursday, June 11, 2015

Thomas G. West — Poverty and Welfare in the American Founding

Both conservatives and liberals often misunderstand the American Founders’ approach to poverty and welfare. Conservatives tend to assume that poor relief in early America was entirely private, while liberals generally think the poor were entirely neglected until the 20th century


(via The Heritage Foundation
Did Americans before the 20th century lack compassion for the poor? Did they treat the poor with indifference or even cruelty? That is the impression given by most high school and college textbooks. Few students ever learn that government-funded welfare, not to mention generous private charity, has existed throughout American history.
James MacGregor Burns’s Government by the People, a college textbook, says that “[c]ontemporary American liberalism has its roots in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, designed to aid the poor and to protect people against unemployment and bank failures.”[1] He implies that the poor received no government aid or protection before the 1930s. Reinforcing this impression, Burns goes on to say that “American conservatism has its roots in the political thinking of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and many of their contemporaries…. Most conservatives opposed New Deal programs and the War on Poverty in the 1960s…. Human needs, they say, can and should be taken care of by charities.”[2]
Larry Berman and Bruce Murphy’s college textbook Approaching Democracy gives a similar slant: “While poverty has existed in the United States since the early colonial days, it first reached the public agenda in the early 1900s as a result of the writings of muckraking journalists.”[3] If poverty “first reached the public agenda” only then, readers are likely to conclude that government did nothing about it before that time. Nothing in Berman and Murphy contradicts that conclusion. Most history textbooks present accounts that are the same as or similar to the accounts given by these political scientists.
These claims about the American past are either untrue or misleading. America has always had laws providing for the poor. The real difference between the Founders’ welfare policies and today’s is over how, not whether, government should help those in need. Neither approach has a monopoly on compassion. The question is: What policies help the poor, and what policies harm them?

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