I was ready to return the half read In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America by Michael B. Katz when the library asked for it back. The book focused on tracing the dominating political philosophies towards welfare through the last two centuries, with descriptions of the everyday life and challenges faced by the poor in each time period playing a supporting role. I would have preferred the emphasis reversed. I also found myself wishing for less meandering and more effort on presenting the book’s ideas concisely.
In many ways, we have made little headway in our attitudes about poverty. Much of the reformations in the 1800’s were based on the assumption that jobs were always readily available if one was willing to work, and thus pauperism was usually a personal failing, due to a lack of work ethic, or intemperance. What aid was given should be as unpleasant and minimal as possible, so as to dissuade the lazy from becoming dependent on public support. There was very little interest in investigating the actual causes of destitution, nor what kind of aid was most effective at returning people to self sufficiency.
Because of their environmental sources, crime, pauperism, ignorance, and mental illness–which observers at the time usually confounded as different manifestations of an underlying and pathological condition of dependence–could be eradicated. Even intemperance could be treated in institutions because it originated in causes extrinsic to individual character, most often a faulty family life in childhood and an absence of religious and secular education. Institutions would seal off individuals from the corrupting, tempting, and distracting influences of the world long enough to reorder their personalities. Even poorhouses shared in this rehabilitative vision; they would suppress intemperance, the primary cause of pauperism, and inculcate the habit of steady work.
The poorhouses failed. They were more expensive, and ended up providing even fewer opportunities to regain independence than the vilified outdoor relief. We still debate the worth of the social safety nets we have put in place, which of course should be discussed, but we still work implicitly and often explicitly under the same assumption that the poor deserve their lot. Congress has failed to reauthorize extended unemployment insurance and instead argues whether the rich can deal with not having their tax breaks extended, all while the nation still struggles with a 9.6% seasonally adjusted unemployment rate with over 5 unemployed (U3, those actively looking) people for every job opening.