Before progressives during the New Deal era nationalized welfare and centralized its administration in Washington DC, the United States inherited a noble tradition of providing assistance to fellow citizens in dire straits.
That tradition stretched back to the early colonial period, long before the American Revolution, and remained intact, robust, and eminently helpful for those who most needed temporary help throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century—until that tradition was eclipsed in the 1930s and 1940s by New Deal policies, introducing the kinds of modern government welfare programs that continue to exist today.
There were important differences, however, between the earlier forms of assistance for individuals and modern, progressive, New Deal, government forms of welfare that came later. And we’d do well to consider these differences if we genuinely care about helping other people, especially fellow citizens.
LOCAL VERSUS NATIONAL
- Earlier forms of assistance were local, where citizens of a community knew which families had suffered unexpected loss and truly needed temporary help versus those who simply didn’t want to work. This allowed people in a community to show real love by helping each other, while making clear that laziness was no claim to other people’s property.
- Progressive, New Deal welfare is centralized in DC and state capitals, administered by professional government bureaucrats who usually know nothing about the personal circumstances in local communities and who work at government agencies that incentivize adding more people to the rosters of welfare recipients.
ABLE-BODIED VERSUS DISABLED
- Earlier forms of assistance discriminated between the many who are able-bodied and the few who are disabled. People in a local community know who among them is able to work and who is not, as well as who is willing to work and who is not. And, typically, able-bodied people were offered assistance only in exchange for work, while families and citizens of various communities almost always helped to care for those few who were truly disabled and incapable of working.
- Many forms of progressive, New Deal welfare have required no work. From anyone. Because assistance provided by government welfare programs is presented as a “right” or something to which citizens are “entitled.” An able-bodied American today can receive fully subsidized health care insurance, for example, paid by other citizens, and never be asked to work. An American today can receive education, housing, food, and all kinds of other goods and services, all paid by others, and never be asked to work.
TEMPORARY ASSISTANCE VERSUS A WAY OF LIFE
- Earlier forms of assistance typically provided the bare minimum for survival, because it was temporary, which often meant eating meager meals and sleeping in a “poor house” that could be anything from a stand-alone structure to a basement of a local church to a farmer’s barn. People who received earlier forms of assistance were highly incentivized to be productive and quickly leave the life of assistance—because the life of assistance sucked.
- Progressive, New Deal welfare aims to provide assistance that equates to some kind of common American standard of living—because some kind of common Americans standard of living is now a “right,” no longer something to be earned. This is why many advocates for government welfare programs argue endlessly that the poor, or others, deserve more entitlement payments from government.
VOLUNTARY VERSUS INVOLUNTARY GIVING
- Earlier forms of assistance were usually voluntary. Those who gave assistance did so because they wanted to give. Those who received assistance knew who was giving to them. It was natural for those who received to feel obligated to pay back those who gave, someday, some way. No one, then, thought that any kind of assistance from anyone was any kind of right. Everyone understood that any assistance was a gift, and they appreciated whatever help they received. The feeling of obligation was yet more incentive for those receiving assistance to work productively so that they could pay back the debt they owed, or, at a minimum, so that those who received assistance could someday be in a position to give assistance to others.
- Progressive, New Deal welfare is not voluntary. It is commanded by government policy, enforce by government power. Taxpayers are forced by law to pay taxes and support progressive, New Deal welfare programs, whether certain individuals want to support those programs or not. The result? Those who give become ubiquitous, and therefore unknown. Those who receive feel no obligation to pay anything back to anyone because they think the assistance they’ve received through government programs is a “right.” Further, recipients don’t even know who they owe should they ever want to pay someone back.
Earlier forms of assistance for individuals was all about people helping other people in times of terrible temporary need, people facing difficult, trying circumstances beyond their control: a fire, a flood, a crippling accident, a disease, etc. These were acts of love and care.
They were also acts of mutual self-interest: A citizen was likely to help someone near who suffered some great misfortune because that citizen knew a great misfortune might visit him someday, and he might find himself in need of help.
Earlier forms of assistance had a beautiful quality about them: They helped those who most needed help, AND, at the same time, they incentivized people to work productively and improve their lives. Those who received temporary help were usually better years later because of that assistance. And those who gave were better because they were helping others become better.
Prior to the New Deal, chronic poverty, meaning generation after generation of poverty within a family, was never considered a claim for temporary assistance from fellow citizens. The reason is that Americans had discovered the ultimate solution to the problem of poverty: Freedom, which includes the freedom to keep whatever wealth one creates.
Americans knew that wealth must be created. They knew that a person creates wealth by producing something valuable to others, some service or good that others want, need, or appreciate.
A family of persons who are busy creating wealth by producing value for others, in a civic environment of freedom and strict legal protections for private property, is a family that’s not chronically poor. Further, a person who is busy creating wealth by producing value for others is a person not prone to idleness and the many pathologies that idleness fuels.
In this way, older forms of assistance, from individuals for individuals, yoked together love for each other with the civic conditions and personal encouragement for human beings to create wealth, escape poverty, and avoid destructive behaviors by staying busy producing value for neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens.
Progressive, New Deal welfare has had one main goal from its inception: Increased power and control for government bureaucrats. It does this by offering different kinds of welfare assistance and different kinds of taxpayer-funded subsidies to different constituencies in exchange for votes, while government bureaucrats regulate, confiscate, keep, and redistribute more and more private property and private wealth.
To be clear: There is no doubt that some individuals have received progressive, New Deal welfare in times of need, appreciated it, and then gone on to produce value for others and prosper. But that does not diminish the fact that the greatest beneficiaries of modern government welfare programs have been those who occupy seats of government power.
There is also no doubt that the rise of the progressive, New Deal welfare state has correlated with and likely has been among the causes of the rise of all kinds of social pathologies, from increased rates of alcoholism and drug addictions to child abuse, sexual abuse, spousal abuse, fatherless children, skyrocketing divorce rates, assaults, thefts, murders, and an array of mental health problems spanning the spectrum from mania to depression.
These outcomes have fueled one of the most damaging, destructive cycles in history: As government programs fuel more human dependency, more human idleness, and more human pathologies, those in government and their supporters insist that the cure is: more government programs! This leads to even more dependency, idleness, and pathologies!
This cycle has now become a gigantic political vortex swirling all around us. It is very much a test of the hearts and brains, the chests and heads of modern American citizens, to see if we can escape this vortex, or stop it, before going completely under.
HOW SHOULD CARING AMERICANS THINK ABOUT HELPING OTHERS?
There’s a narrative popular in American political culture today that anyone who wants to scale back government spending or government assistance programs is somehow cruel, mean-spirited, or uncaring. But that’s not at all clear. A survey of American history suggests that the government spending and assistance programs we’ve developed over many decades have caused great harm to growing numbers of people.
Should any social scientists truly want to help fellow citizens, they might pause from their advocacy for more government programs, more centralization of government power, more government control over the lives and property of citizens—they might look beyond the immediate horizon of trying to therapeutize the growing numbers of victims of disastrous progressive, New Deal, big government programs—and they might study the deeper causes of the social pathologies they lament, causes rooted in laws and public policies and government programs that greatly influence human lifestyles, human attitudes, human choices, and human behaviors over the course of generations.
For those who genuinely care about other human beings, for those with big bleeding hearts, for those who want to see others healthy, happy, and prosperous, let us step back from the noise and name-calling of political bickering and study, learn, and discuss with each other the larger civic conditions most conducive to human flourishing, and the conditions linked to the worst of human pathologies. Let us set our course toward the former and away from the latter. Let us be a model for the rest of the world to emulate. We should do nothing less, if we truly want to help people.