What comes to mind when you think of poverty policies prior to FDR’s New Deal? For many people, the idea of pre-1940s welfare is likely to resemble something out of a Charles Dickens’ novel: destitute adults in the poorhouse and hungry children (usually orphans) eating a bowl of gruel.
That impression is likely what we have about welfare in America during the era of the Founding Fathers. But is it accurate?
“The left often claims the Founders were indifferent to the poor—suggesting that New Deal America ended callousness and indifference,” says Thomas West. “Indeed, high school and college textbooks frequently espouse this narrative. Many on the right think the Founders advocated only for charitable donations as the means of poverty relief.”
Neither impression is correct, adds West. America always has had laws providing for the poor: The real difference between the Founders’ welfare policies and today’s is over how, not whether, government should help those in need.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin believed government has an obligation to help the poor. Both thought welfare policies should support children, the disabled, widows and others who could not work. But any aid policy, they insisted, would include work-requirements for the able-bodied.
Rather than making welfare a generational inheritance, Franklin thought it should assist the poor in overcoming poverty as expediently as possible: “I am for doing good to the poor.…I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”
Moreover, local, rather than federal, officials administered this welfare, since they were more likely to know the particular needs of recipients and could distinguish between the deserving poor (the disabled and involuntarily unemployed) and the undeserving poor (those capable of work but preferring not to).
The Founders sought to provide aid in a way that would help the deserving poor but minimize incentives for recipients to act irresponsibly. They wanted to protect the rights of taxpayers by preventing corruption and abuses in welfare aid.
Above all, the Founders saw the family and life-long marriage as the primary means of support for everyone, rich and poor alike.