Tax-Funded Welfare: American as Apple Pie

Just blocks away from founding fathers hashed out constitution-Philadelphia Almshouse
Just blocks away from where founding fathers hashed out constitution-Philadelphia Almshouse

Contrary to claims of small-government fundamentalists, tax-funded assistance for the poor has been carried on in America from colonial days.

The anti-poor echo chamber insists that it is somehow un-American for the government to help poor citizens. Shall we let them die? Well, that would solve the problem for good: no poor, no problem-to paraphrase Stalin’s maxim. No one actually says that out loud, of course, they say private charity should take up the issue. To which I say: “Do it! Do it now and we will watch the welfare wither from lack of demand.” No? Why not? Because it’s a very, very delusional idea, that’s why.

No one who actually knows any poor people, has worked in social services or church benevolence programs thinks this is any way workable. Nor did our forefathers.

We tend to forget that the colonists were British and followed British customs. They brought the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 across the Atlantic, according to “Social Insurance and Public Assistance” from Historical Statistics of the United States.  Rhode island, for example, adapted the Elizabethan Poor Law “with hardly a revision,” according to the report. Under it’s provisions each parish or township had to pay a property tax for relief of its poor.

Colonial poor relief included “outdoor relief” by which the recipient was helped while remaining in the community and “indoor relief” which provided shelter in an almshouse.

Children were auctioned off as apprentices to farmers and able-bodied adults worked at the almshouse. Practices varied slightly from one colony to another and the auctioning of poor children gradually faded away. Auctioning children away from their families strikes modern ears as harsh, but we forget that indentured servitude was common and many English children were sent to the colonies under those conditions. They were freed at age 21.

Even as the founders debated independence, eight blocks away a large public almshouse was operating, according to the Pennsylvania Gazette (May 29, 1776)

From 1610-1660 in the Dutch colony of New Netherland, (aka New York) publicly financed poor relief was administered through the Dutch Reformed Church. They employed two persons for home visits-perhaps the first government-funded social workers. Public assistance was a reality as demonstrated by the 1620 the Act of Settlement, which  required recipients to be residents of the town from which they got help.

One example from the History of Middletown, (CT) shows the ubiquity of public welfare in the colonies. One James Stevenson in 1768 billed the city for compensation for “keeping the Old Blind Squaw…thirteen weeks…” The elderly Wangunk widow named Tyke, with no family members left to care for her, was supported by the town through a local citizen. There was never a time when our forefathers thought it was all right to simply let people starve to death before their eyes and furthermore they thought helping the poor was a legitimate function of government.

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