In a recent Washington Post column, George Will argued that since the 1960s War on Poverty, expanded social services have historically hurt the character of low-income Americans, reducing self-reliance and promoting fraud.
In the year 2015, this argument—and the response that social safety nets protect the weakest and unluckiest from horrific fates—is nothing if not predictable. What might surprise many of us, though, is how far back that debate goes.
Writing in 1882 (and quoted in one of several documents republished by Social Service Review in 1929), George E. McGonegal, New York State Superintendent of the Poor, discussed the limited local public relief programs of his day. He warned that “[p]eople, very soon after commencing to receive public aid, lose their energy and self-respect… their children learn to think that getting provisions and fuel from the overseer of the poor is perfectly right and proper, and they are almost certain to follow in the footsteps of their parents.”
By 1934, the very start of the New Deal era, economist and social worker Edith Abbott wrote an appeal to transform the locally based system of “poor laws” to something more appropriate for the modern era. Abbott argues that the old system was based on an extreme distrust of any public relief, influenced by Thomas Robert Malthus.
She quotes Mathus’s position, that the “pauper” should “be taught to know that the laws of nature, which are the laws of God, had doomed him and his family to suffer… that he had no claim of right on society for the smallest portion of food, beyond that which his labour would fairly purchase…”
In her own day, Abbott writes, that attitude has “been gradually disappearing. Our whole understanding of the fundamental rights of the common man has radically changed in the last generation. There is a new theory that certain minimum standards of living must be available for all.”
Abbot saw a new public education system taking form, and—writing the year before the establishment of the Social Security Administration—called for the federal government to begin providing old age pensions.
The New Deal radically changed the shape of public welfare, but the debate continued much the same in 1940, when Wayne McMillen reported that the “gargantuan relief expenditures ushered in by the depression at first appalled the taxpayers—then frightened them.” Newspapers ran major stories about alleged fraud in the system: “Facsimiles of relief checks were printed with a picture of the payee in prison or at work in private industry.”
In response, relief agencies installed cumbersome mechanisms for guarding against fraud, something McMillen argued was ultimately counterproductive. Welfare, he argued, “will always include a small minority of persons who are prepared to abuse it. But policies should not be formulated exclusively for that minority.” Seventy-five years later this argument is still familiar to anyone who reads the newspapers.