Posted on July 18, 2008

From Workhouse to Welfare

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, September 1992

The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky, Regnery Gateway, 1992. 299 pp.

All too often the follies of the present merely repeat those of the past; what is foolish today was found to be equally foolish when it was tried 100 years ago. Although it is tempting to think that only our century could have spawned something so misguided as welfare payments, The Tragedy of American Compassion teaches otherwise. Marvin Olasky’s illuminating history of American charity shows that relief workers have always had to contend with the impulse to give indiscriminately to layabouts, and that even in the 19th century, Americans flirted with the dole.

The Tragedy of American Compassion by Marvin Olasky

Nevertheless, as Dr. Olasky explains, traditional American charity has been vastly different from today’s welfare — and far more successful. First, it has been private and voluntary; only since the 1920s has any federal money gone to relief, and local governments have been very wary of welfare. Second, private charities did their work sensibly: They screened out loafers, searched for family members who could help, and tried to find people work rather than give them money. Finally, charity was driven by the religious conviction that the vices that caused poverty could be cured only by moral regeneration.

Thus, until only a few decades ago, Americans had healthy suspicions about the poor: that many were responsible for their own indigence and would happily live on charity rather than work. If Dr. Olasky’s book demonstrates anything, it is that relief work must make these assumptions. Effective charity is as much the art of withholding as it is of giving.

The Workhouse

In colonial times, charity did not go much beyond help for victims of catastrophe, and neighbors helped each other. When there was fire or earthquake, people shared their homes with the victims. If a family’s breadwinner were killed or maimed and there were no relatives to depend on, neighbors informally adopted the children or took in the mother as a seamstress.

Even so, every society has a class of unregenerates who exhaust all patience and generosity. For these people there was the workhouse. Dr. Olasky explains that it was as good as its name; inmates got rough lodging and meager rations in exchange for work. Only cripples and idiots were exempted, and shirkers could be flogged. Our forebears took Second Thessalonians seriously: “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” The workhouse was run by the community, but it was supported by the labor of its inmates.

For the colonists, the workhouse was the end of the line. A person could sink no lower, but at least he would not starve. Moreover, the workhouse was the only “public” charity to which citizens were entitled. “Outdoor relief,” or alms given to people not under workhouse supervision, was thought to be a temptation to indolence.

When cities appeared, relief work required something more than neighbor-to-neighbor charity, and hundreds of private associations sprang up to fill the need. Although they did not require that recipients live in supervised housing, volunteers investigated applicants carefully to screen out chiselers and to see if there were no relatives who could be asked to give support. Three to five families were thought more than enough for a volunteer and each was to get to know the families well. This way, charity could be increased — or withheld — as appropriate, and it usually took the form of food, clothing, or fuel rather than money. Nor did the poor get something for nothing; they were expected to try to get back on their feet and any who did not could be cut off.

The American system was much better than the government-funded “outdoor relief” that was common in Europe. Benjamin Franklin was only one of many Americans who were appalled by the results of government programs in Britain that gave money but asked no questions. “There is no country in the world,” he wrote, “in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken and insolent.” Dr. Olasky explains that the British themselves were struck by how differently the two systems worked. He quotes an approving Englishman who spent two years in the United States during the 1830s and who “saw but one beggar.” Alexis de Tocqueville also admired the American network of voluntary relief associations, which he found more effective than European state-run relief.

At the heart of American successes was hard-headed thinking. Dr. Olasky quotes a number of 19th century charity officials who, today, would be treated as ogres. One explained that the able-bodied poor “should be compelled to work or left to suffer the consequences of their misconduct.” Another wrote that the causes of pauperism included ignorance, idleness, intemperance, and “charities that gave away money too freely.” His organization tried to stop townsmen from giving money to beggars because it was impossible to tell the deserving from the undeserving. One official, in a rhetorical address to the indolent, wrote, “You will gossip and smoke, neglect your children and beg, live in filth and discomfort, drink and carouse, do almost anything rather than work, and expect, forsooth, to be supported by charity.” These charity workers were certainly “insensitive” by today’s standards, but they did an excellent job of caring for those in need.


Nevertheless, not everyone was satisfied. The Abolitionist newspaperman, Horace Greeley, was one of the first influential Americans to argue that the government should take from the rich and give to the poor. Although he later repented of his views — he came to believe that nine tenths of the beggars who held out their hands were “thriftless vagabonds” — his socialist editorials prepared the way for an unprecedented growth in “outdoor relief” in the 1860s and 1870s. Fortunately, this first attempt at a “great society” was quickly dismantled when local governments discovered that fighting poverty with tax money was a good way to swell the ranks of the poor.

Soon, America was back to discriminating between the needy and the greedy. Charities set up wood yards where they gave “work tests.” If a man were willing to chop wood for a few hours, he was worthy of help. When one Boston charity established a wood yard, the “needy” fell from 160 a day to fewer than 50. Dr. Olasky reports that by the turn of the century, charity wood yards were as common as liquor stores are today. The end of the century may have been one of the best periods in American charity. Relief workers had seen the failure of government welfare and had even noted the moral corruption of the people who administered it. An 1894 study of government-run relief concluded that “the degradation of character of the man on a salary set to the work of relieving the poor is one of the most discouraging things in connection with relief-work. . . .” Charity, like the ministry, should be a calling, not a job.

Unfortunately, it soon became a job. Dr. Olasky explains that the optimism of the new century brought a different view of relief work. Ministers and politicians forgot that the poor often brought about their own poverty. The patient, individual efforts of volunteers were thought to be old-fashioned, and inferior to grander schemes. “Social change” became the goal rather than the moral regeneration of the poor. Religion was set aside.

Perhaps most dangerously, as soon as Americans began to think that society rather than individuals caused poverty, it was logical to think that only government had the means to remake society. Professional social workers appeared, and as charity became a profession, mere volunteers were no longer thought fit to deal with the indigent. Even before the Depression, the philosophical foundation for the welfare state was being laid.

It was not, however, a straight line from the New Deal to the Great Society. The programs of the 1930s were to offer temporary aid for rehabilitation, and President Franklin Roosevelt thought state aid was a “narcotic.” Even in the early 1960s, Dr. Olasky tells us, welfare workers in New York City were still being warned that it could be as important to withhold relief as to give it, and the bureaucracy was still trying to locate relatives who could help. It is only in the last few decades that the stigma of the dole has evaporated, welfare has become a “right,” and the incompetent and irresponsible get unconditional handouts.

Government charity also squeezed the life out of the private associations that had done so much good work. As Dr. Olasky explains, bad charity drives out good; relief efforts that put the able-bodied poor to work and seek to correct their moral deficiencies will lose their clientele to government clerks who issue checks and ask no questions.

Long as it is on fascinating detail, The Tragedy of American Compassion is short on analysis and mute on solutions. Though Dr. Olasky does not say so explicitly, he has described a radical change in the way Americans understand human nature. Suddenly to hold society responsible for the failures of individuals was to toss aside the accumulated wisdom of centuries. Why did Americans abandon the principles of charity that had guided them? Why do we permit the continuing horrors of the welfare state? Why, aside from a few people like Charles Murray (who wrote the preface for this book), does no one call for the abolition of the dole? There is a paralysis of thought on these subjects that Dr. Olasky does not acknowledge and therefore cannot explain.