The Consequence of a Shattered Safety Net: Return to the Poorhouse?

By: David Dayen Wednesday December 29, 2010 12:44 pm

Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney do the nation another excellent service today by examining what the world would be like without Social Security. It isn’t too hard to imagine – you just have to dive back into the pre-1930s history books. And you will see the world of the poorhouse, the last refuge for the elderly and the infirm, the farms run by private charities which provided a dour and often cruel existence for those on the edges of society. Grim and Delaney begin with a fitting example of someone bound for the poorhouse back in 1896:

The woman “could not give street and number, but could ‘fotch’ the agent to her place,” according to a case study labeled “Aunt Winnie” in one of the organization’s annual reports from near the turn of the century. “Old age, with a heavy load on top and a strong wind blowing, made the walk a trying one. At last the 8×10 cabin was reached. In it was a stove in many pieces held together with wire, a bedstead with rags for mattress and rags for covering. From the leaky roof the floor was wet through and through.”

Aunt Winnie, the report said, had no income save the 50 cents she made every two weeks for taking in the wash. In summertime she raised herbs and greens, but in winter she “suffered for food and fuel.” Her children had all been sold away to slavery, and a nearby niece was too poor to offer any support. Her neighbors helped, providing money for the stove and cot, and a “colored friendly visitor was found to carry broth and other comforts to her.” The neighborly charity wasn’t enough to persuade the agent, who was essentially a private sector version of a social worker, that the old woman should be on her own.

This was a common occurrence in the days before Social Security, which basically wiped out extreme elderly poverty in America. But to a growing number of conservatives, this Gilded Age era represented the salad days, where people rose and fell on the basis of their talents without big government propping them up. They long for a return to a nation without a safety net, where private charities possibly pick up the slack, and where rugged individualism rules the day. To them, there’s no greater government than one which refuses to help people. MORE

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