January 18, 2012

RE: Life Before Entitlement - Historical Perspective

Marc Comtois

The article to which Justin referred discusses the mutual aid societies that cropped up during the late 19th and early 20th century to deal with poverty and other social issues. Historian Walter Trattner, author of From Poor Law to Welfare State, was quoted in the article:

Those in need. . . looked first to family, kin, and neighbors for aid, including the landlord, who sometimes deferred the rent; the local butcher or grocer, who frequently carried them for a while by allowing bills to go unpaid; and the local saloonkeeper, who often came to their aid by providing loans and outright gifts, including free meals and, on occasion, temporary jobs. Next, the needy sought assistance from various agencies in the community–those of their own devising, such as churches or religious groups, social and fraternal associations, mutual aid societies, local ethnic groups, and trade unions.
Anecdotally, I know this to be true in my own family. My grandparents owned a small general store in northern Vermont and many was the time when they carried people going through a rough spot. (After he died, my grandfather's papers included more than a few uncollected IOUs, including property or farm deeds). The sense of community was very real and aid societies were comprised of such like-minded individuals who bonded together to help their neighbors and those in need.

A good paper on the topic was written by Dave Beito.

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 including orphanages, hospitals, job exchanges, homes for the elderly, and scholarship programs.

But societies also gave benefits that were much less quantifiable. By joining a lodge, an initiate adopted, at least implicitly, a set of survival values.

Societies dedicated themselves to the advancement of mutualism, self-reliance, business training, thrift, leadership skills, self-government, self-control, and good moral character. These values, which can fit under the rubric of social capital, reflected a kind of fraternal consensus that cut across such seemingly intractable divisions as race, sex, and income.

Men (or, more exactly, white men) were not the only to participate in such community support. The membership and goals were varied.
The record of five societies that thrived at or near the turn of the century illustrates the many variants of this system. Each had a distinct membership base. Two of the societies, the Independent Order of Saint Luke and the United Order of True Reformers, were all-black. Both had been founded by ex-slaves after the Civil War and specialized initially in sickness and burial insurance. The other societies had entirely white memberships. The Loyal Order of Moose was an exclusively male society that emphasized sickness and burial benefits. It became best known during the 20th century for its orphanage, Mooseheart, near Aurora, Illinois. The Security Benefit Association (originally the Knights and Ladies of Security) followed in a similar tradition but broke from the mainstream by allowing men and women to join on equal terms. During the 1910s and the 1920s, the Knights and Ladies of Security established a hospital, a home for the elderly, and an orphanage all in a single location near Topeka. The Ladies of the Maccabees was an all-white, all-female society. It provided such health benefits as surgical care. It is worth noting that the women who belonged to these societies, regarded themselves as members of fraternal rather than sororal societies. For them, fraternity, much like liberty and equality, was the common heritage of both men and women. To this end, an official of the Ladies of the Maccabees asserted that "Fraternity in these modern days has been wrested from its original significance and has come to mean a sisterhood, as well as a brotherhood, in the human family."
These societies were successful in their mission, but they eventually declined. Beito gives a few reasons for why, "including increased competition from commercial insurance and the lure of competing forms of entertainment, such as radio and movies, it was fundamentally due to a transformation in the nature of fraternalism. By the 1940s, conviviality and life insurance, instead of mutual aid, became the order of the day." Additionally, there was pressure from medical professions:
As early as the 1910s, the profession, increasingly fortified by tighter certification requirements which reduced the supply of doctors, had launched an all-out war against fraternal medical services by imposing manifold sanctions, including denial of licenses against doctors who accepted these contracts. One highly effective method of enforcement was to pressure hospitals to close their doors to fraternal members who used "lodge doctors."
As Justin alludes, the rise of the welfare state played a role. Yet, according to Beito, it is hard to quantify.
The first three decades of the 20th century brought a rapid and unprecedented expansion in the government's social welfare role. The two leading sources of growth were mothers' pensions and workers' compensation. In 1910, no state had either program; by 1931, both were nearly universal. During the 1920s, the number of individuals on the mothers' pension rolls almost doubled.

Certainly, there were more than a few leaders of fraternal societies who predicted that this rising welfare state would eventually undermine mutual aid. As the magazine of the Fraternal Order of Eagles put in 1915, "the State is doing or planning to do for the wage-earner what our Order was a pioneer in doing eighteen years ago. All this is lessening the popular appeal of our beneficial features. With that appeal weakened or gone, we shall have lost a strong argument for joining the Order; for no fraternity can depend entirely on its recreational features to attract members."

During the 1930s, officials of the homes for the elderly and orphans of the SBA cited Social Security and other welfare programs as justification not only for rejecting applicants but for closing down entirely. The Security Benefit Association, for instance, closed its orphanage because of "a lack of demand or need for that form of benevolence attributable to public funds now available for the support of dependent children." It used the same justification to discontinue its home for the elderly several years later. While Mooseheart remained open and even increased capacity, applications fell off rapidly in the decades after the Depression because of a rise in social-welfare alternatives such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Mutual aid was a creature of necessity. Once this necessity ended, so too did the primary reason for the existence of fraternalism. Without a return to this necessity any revival of mutual aid will remain limited. Moreover, fraternal membership, although still heavily working class, no longer includes the very poor who most need social welfare services.

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My great grandfather came to this country with nothing and opened a general store. Our family was a much discriminated against minority, but we never got any handouts because of it, which is fine by us. My grandfather took over the store at the height of the Great Depression. His family had very little, but they were thankful for what they had, and most of his customers had far less. People paid what they could, and when they could pay nothing, they took food, clothes, and other merchandise on credit. Much of it was never repaid and was never expected to be. The point is that nobody "starved on the streets," to borrow one particularly outrageous progressive narrative.

Posted by: Dan at January 18, 2012 9:26 AM

Unfortunately, that boat has sailed from port.
There is now, under LIHEAP, a program to provide free AIR CONDITIONING (not a typo) to the welfare class and illegal aliens.
There are now programs to give the "poor" kids free suppers in the NEA schools to bring home for the nights and weekends plus over school vacations. It has become alien to a progressive dominated generation that the responsibility to feed children belongs to their families.
I won't even bring up the Obama Phone-free cell phones for the indigent and illegal aliens.

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at January 18, 2012 1:04 PM

40 years ago, when Nixon vetoed a free babysitting bill (sponsored by ghetto rat Shirley Chisholm) he called it the “Sovietization of American children.”


Posted by: Tommy Cranston at January 18, 2012 1:11 PM

I wonder how good the "good ole days" really were. There were "poor laws" that permitted a town to rid itself of incoming poor by giving them enough money to get to the next town.

There were "poor farms" and "Overseers of the Poor". My house belonged to one of those, never have figured out his duties, I think he managed the "Poor Farm".

Read about life in the Five Points section of New York. Do you think our ancestors carried sword canes and large headed canes because they were feeble. Street crime was beyond our comprehension. Starving children were everywhere, Sherlock Holmes' "Street Arabs". Central Park has three armories (try that today), originally to protect the populace from the "rabble". You can see that in Boston's Park Square, the "castle" is now a furniture store and the moat is gone. Back Bay residents wanted a safe place to hide. Isn't there an armory on Benefit Street? Note that it has slit windows for defense.

Before cheap transportation,people literally starved in a "bad year". Neighbors didn't help each other, because they couldn't.

The memorial "unpaid IOU's" were probably not kept from sentiment. They were probably uncollectable and held for a time when they might be collectable. Otherwise, it is like keeping losing lottery tickets.

I will say that the "Credit Unions" were an advance in mutual aid, and banks have been trying to close them to this very day. How about this one, there is a law in Mass that a credit union cannot profit from rents in a building it owns. Ever heard of a "banking law" like that?

Posted by: Warrington Faust at January 18, 2012 1:58 PM

Posted by Dan
"My great grandfather came to this country with nothing and opened a general store."

Surely there is more to that story. How was it possible? "opening a store" is a substantial investment. Was someone walking away, and your ancestor took it and made a go of it. Even today, most pizza shops are all family. That has more to do with tax evasion.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at January 18, 2012 2:02 PM

"Surely there is more to that story."

It was a relatively rural area of New York and it wasn't a large store. It was also much easier to open up a business in the early 1900's than it is today. I assume everyone in the family took some sort of basic work until there was enough money to open the business. There may have been some savings from the "old country," but there certainly wasn't any real wealth brought over. The reason they left, like most, was for a real opportunity to succeed (not a handout).

Posted by: Dan at January 18, 2012 2:44 PM

"My great grandfather came to this country with nothing and opened a general store."

And my grandfather dropped out of grade school to work in a factory. The point that "nobody 'starved on the streets'" seems a bit questionable. What's not questionable is the "progressive narrative" that many children died or were maimed in those factories.


Young children working endured some of the harshest conditions. Workdays would often be 10 to 14 hours with minimal breaks during the shift. Factories employing children were often very dangerous places leading to injuries and even deaths. Machinery often ran so quickly that little fingers, arms and legs could easily get caught. Beyond the equipment, the environment was a threat to children as well as factories put out fumes and toxins. When inhaled by children these most certainly could result in illness, chronic conditions or disease.

Children working in rural areas were not faring much better. Harvesting crops in extreme temperatures for long hours was considered normal for these children. Work in agriculture was typically less regulated than factory duties. Farm work was often not considered dangerous or extraneous for children, even though they carried their weight and more in loads of produce and handled dangerous tools.

Beyond the topic of safety, children working lengthy hours had limited access to education. Many families relied on income earned by each family member and did not allow children to attend school at all. Those fortunate enough to be enrolled often attended only portions of a school day or only a few weeks at a time. Library of Congress Learning Page Features and Activities Accessed 9.24.08

I'm with WF. Let's not sugar coat it.

Posted by: Russ at January 18, 2012 4:30 PM

The terrible conditions of many workplaces at the turn of the 20th century are well-understood. However, it needs to be viewed in the circumstances of the time. Nobody wanted their child to work in a factory - they did because they had to, and no amount of progressive legislation could change that economic reality, just as progressive legislation cannot change our own economic reality today. If child labor had been banned, then people really would have starved on a mass scale. Technology, free enterprise, and trade have spared us that life, so thankfully now we can afford the luxury of banning it.

I'm reminded of progressives who decry the evils of corporations opening factories abroad and paying the workers little by American standards. Would they prefer to let those people starve and die, or work in the fields or the mines? Why do they think the lines stretch around the block five times over in those countries? Eye of the beholder.

Posted by: Dan at January 18, 2012 4:42 PM

It is troll's like this "Russ" character who control DC and are ensuring we as a society are steadily heading to a Greek-style apocalypse.
Every progressive blood soaked failed regime from 1789 on has come to power promising peace, food, equality, brotherhood and "a better world."

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at January 18, 2012 8:30 PM

About "child labor", much had to do with the times. The idea of "loving your children" is a relatively new idea, particularly among English speakers.

I recently read a pre-Victorian diary, sorry, name won't come to me. The diarist was amazed at the cold attitude towards children among the English. Even among the wealthy,early age boarding school was the norm. Children died so frequently, that attachment did not benefit you.

Children were seen as "small people". Look at pre-victorian portraits, the children are dressed as adults.

Distressful as child labor was, there was no viable alternative. Whole families lived in a single room. Until the 1960's (later in Rhode Island, I think the 80's) landlord "self help" was recognized. If the rent wasn't paid, you just shut off the heat or water. In our age of cheap, even surplus, food; we have no idea of the cost of "feeding a family". Railroads had not come into their own, there was no refrigeration, everything "perished" within days. The English poor subsisted on "porridge". Basically oatmeal (probably a cheaper grain)kept simmering with apple cores, leather, bones, etc thrown in to give it flavor. The French Revolution was preceeded by "Bread riots". Remember "Let them eat cake", I understand that she really said "mange merde". The Victorians cleaned that up, in the way they made "horse sneezes" from farts. There were no preservatives for bread, the English poor ate stale bread dipped in beer.

Remember the romantic "street sweepers"? In a horse and buggy day, what is it you imagine they swept? Why do you think Raleigh threw down his cloak so that the queen could avoid the "mud"? Life was very hard. I remember living on Beacon Hill before "pooper scoopers". When the snow melted, the stench was horrible. And that was just dogs.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at January 18, 2012 11:37 PM

The timelines are important here. The societies sprung up in reaction to much of what Warrington and Russ are decrying. They were just as much a part of the Progressive movement as more well-known things like prohibition or work safety, etc. actually. But it was a movement that cropped up amongst the successful middle-class (if you will) to help the less fortunate. Were they able to help everyone or address every ill? Of course not, but that does not make them unique in their failure. As far as how this morphed into the welfare state (or was made irrelevant by it) is something that a blog post can't adequately address, but the Beito piece is a good start.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at January 19, 2012 8:22 AM

"It is troll's [sic] like this 'Russ' character who control DC..."

Hahahaha. Yes, all those DC socialists like Bernie Sanders and... um, hmmm.

Posted by: Russ at January 19, 2012 3:14 PM
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