Sunday, April 14, 2013

American industrial revolution and poverty, social program development and laws

How a society cares for itself is the result of political choices at every level, not of technical, value-free, expert decisions about the dispensation of economic and social responsibility.

-- Withorn 1984 p. 217

A Time of Social Equality and Betterment

Who leads?

The quote can be interpreted, abruptly, to mean that a society cares for itself based on the decisions it makes. A society can choose to turn it's decision-making agency over to experts in fields related to the politically affected area under scrutiny. These experts will prefer that the society turns over it's will to them, for the betterment of itself. Withorn abhors this idea, and argues that society be its own master, and at every level.

Withorn's idea echoes an enduring theme in American social history, that of slave and master, or indentured servant and contractor, or worker and supervisor, of family and patriarch, or poor and wealthy. This relationship vaguely reflects the natural order of the earth, with those on the bottom of the food chain marginalized and abused, unvalued and in excess. Nietzsche referred to this dynamic in human relationships as "the will to power," The greater its presence within human society, the sicker the society.

People choose their lives

Another implication of Withorn's quote is the belief that people are constantly choosing the policies which govern their lives. It is not government or policital leaders who simply have the power to make policy; a society gives politicians, employers and executives power over policy, at the micro, meso and macro level. Withorn implies that political power is given by the people, and will be directed by whomever is given consent, or by whomever consent is not withdrawn.

American social policy can be seen as following an alternating path of being directed by these "experts" and by the society. As American society has progressed, the working classes has become more active in the creation of their policy, and support has been given to them though progressive policy.

Elizabethan 15th Century Poor Laws

The Elizabethan Poor Laws, established early in the 1600's, came about in response to the inability of church and state to sustain a society in which every citizen was able to function. These laws set out basic categories of the poor and established services for each group. The first group, the able-bodied poor, were given work that was roughly equivalent to slave labor. Other citizens were were discouraged from helping them financially. The second group was of disabled people, either physically or mentally, who were deemed unfit to do work and sent to live at almshouses (Katz, 1996). The third group consisted of orphans, who were forced into apprenticeships (Bloy, 2002). These laws drove the thinking behind social welfare policy in the UK. and eventually America, for a long time, including between 1800 and the Great Depression.

Social Darwinism

Herbert Spencer's coined phrase "survival of the fittest," and William Graham Sumner's theory of social Darwinism played a role in the development, or lack of development, of social policy. The theories, taken slightly out of context and used for the justification of the status quo, were partially responsible for a prevailing mentality of blaming people in poverty instead of looking at how they were set up to be there. Social Darwinism was a descriptive theory, which looked at society as a state of nature where the fittest survived through natural selection. The theory saw those at the bottom of society as those who were less fit for survival. Then the theory was taken from descriptive to prescriptive, as some people touted that because social Darwinism was playing out all the time, the way things were was the way things ought to be. If people were in poverty, they ought to be there because they were less fit. People were assumed to be responsible for everything that happened to them. Overall, prescriptive social Darwinism was a terrible assertion, and unfortunately for those who did not happen to be born into privilege, it was not an easily challenged assertion (Boland, 1995). Perhaps those who might have challenged it simply took it at face value, unable to better explain how they got to be so stuck and marginalized.

Manufacturing Poverty: The Working Poor

The industrial revolution contributed to poverty in the United States. Manufacturing and technology led to a lesser demand for skilled tradespeople and apprenticeships. Assembly lines and simple tasks came to dominate the job market. People moved from rural settings to urban ones, seeking jobs, then became stuck in cities due to low wages and lack of job security. Demand for labor stayed just lower than supply of abor, and the lack of need for skilled workers kept employees easily interchangeable (Katz, 1996).

Movements and the organization of people grew immensely out of unrest throughout the country between 1800 and the early 1900s. Social policy was influenced and carried out by several groups. Often, Evanglical Christians and Catholics saught to bring religiosity and spiritual principles to welfare work, as well as welfare recipients. Volunteer groups often did micro and meso-level work to provide emergency aid to suffering citizens, disregarding the actual causes of poverty. If any causes were attributed, they were spiritual in nature, and by definition, scientifically unverifiable. Religious groups worked to aid the poor and suffering partially through the motive of indoctrinating them into their religion. Religious groups often worked separately, instead of together, to "help" the poor.

Much good came from the non-secular social welfare programs, despite the rigid intent which drove the many movements. Education, training, health care, emergency aid, and other forms of aid were dispersed. By avoiding a scientific stance on the causes of poverty, non-secular welfare groups often pushed an underlying agenda and continued to subvert the will of the poor instead of empowering the poor.

The beginnings of social welfare

Social welfare was provided almost entirely private agencies and religious organizations before the 1930s. Minimal support was given by states and local governments, and none by the federal government. Poor people were blamed for being that way. The dominant thought process was that poor people were lazy and stupid, an harsh extension of the falsely prescriptive social Darwinists (Boland, 1995; Katz, 1996). As a result, those receiving social services were ostracized. Having to receive social support was discouraged. In fact, it was thought that by negatively labeling the poor, it would encourage people not to be poor (Katz, 1996). Social services were largely viewed as an immoral venture, despite the fact that the bulk of American society would have benefited from them during the 1800s.


Poorhouses or almshouses were precursors to homeless shelters and mental health treatment, offering services and work to the poor. The concept of aid in this form grew from Elizabethan poor laws. The poor were treated similarly to slaves, often sold at auction (Katz, 1996). This practice, and others which also demoralized the poor, were commonplace, exhibiting a lack of understanding of human behavior.

The poorhouse social service effort had utterly failed by the 1850s. A combination of inadequate sanitation, lack of medical access, failed works programs, inability to get most "inmates" back to a functional level in the community, and inability to reduce the economic burden of pauperism, resulted in a necessary rethinking to the system (Katz, 1996).

From 1800 to the mid 1800s, social services were reserved for vulnerable members of society took place. Jail was only an option for criminals long enough to hold them for trial. After trial they were harshly punished and released, if they were still alive. People with mental illnesses either were shunned by society and solely the responsibility of their families or institutionalized in large almshouses (Katz, 1996).

Hull House

Women reformers were responsible for the first truly successful poor aid during th late 1800s. Hull House's "settlement houses" provided a surrogate family-style support system for poor members of society. Not formally religiously affiliated, Hull House drew funding from local non-religious sources. This helped the houses remain "politically autonomous" (Sklar, 1985). Hull House members eventually made an impact on labor and equality related policy at the federal level. Women and children benefited most from Hull House's political reform and social service model, but the lower classes were given a voice by the movement as well.

The reforms of Hull House embodied Withorn's quote. Women were helping women, making decisions for women, and advocating for women. Women made policy choices at the micro, meso and macro level, influencing the policy which they had to live by.

Depression Era Social Practices

The Great Depression marked a culmination of many unhealthy economic and social practices. Many factors contributed to the Depression. Experts continue to bicker on precisely how it happened. The stock market crash of 1929 was a symbolic beginning to the period of decline, in which many Americans were rendered penniless and unemployed. A lack of confidence in the expansion of the market, and the closing of hundreds of banks caused a drying up of lending, and a massive halt to the economy (Schoenherr, 2003). Living conditions worsened dramatically for Americans, and the potential to be abused by employers increased as the demand for labor was low, unemployment was high, and workers were not particularly organized (Katz, 1996).

Charities should handle social welfare

President Hoover was reluctant to back federal social services during the the Depression because he thought charity was a job of for the private sector. Additionally, he believed that federal aid would make people dependent, and unmotivated to be off of the aid. He thought it would build an attitude of entitlement (Schoenherr, 2003).

Social Security Act

The Social Security Act was passed in 1935, in the midst of economic turbulence. This piece of legislation provided for the first guarantee of economic and medical benefits for struggling members of American society. It was a landmark piece of social welfare policy because it marked the state's assumption of responsibility for some of the wellbeing of it's citizens (Abramovitz, 1988). It established a minimum level of living; a safety net when times turned tough. No longer did policy completely blame people for their economic misfortunes.

The Social Security Act came in response to a crisis in the economy and in the family. Jobs were scarce and lacked security and benefits. Marriage and birth rates were dropping. Women were entering the workforce in huge numbers after the turn of the century. The Act was partially a way to quiet the mass societal unrest with the distribution of wealth and labor power, which was successful (Abramovitz, 1988). The working class was supported by the government during the inevitable economic hills and valleys created by a capitalist economy with a fractional reserve banking system. Some academicians viewed the Social Security act as a stabilizing force for the family and micro-level economics, which in turn allowed for an economic recovery (Schoenherr, 2003; Abramovitz, 1988).


Withorn's quote touches on the importance of a society's choice in the policies which govern it. As America progressed from 1800 to the Great Depression, policy came to better support those who were affected by it. The working class poor went from being blamed for their poverty and solely responsible for their recovery, to supported by the state when factors beyond their control thrust them into crisis.


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