September 12, 2004


The Statistical Christs: a review of The New Victorians by Stephen Pimpare (Jefferson Decker September 9, 2004, In These Times)

In Philadelphia, public relief spending doubled between 1850 and 1870. In New York City, expenditures doubled during the 1860s alone. But this expansion also faced a concerted counter-attack in the 1870s and 1880s, from a group of intellectuals, political reformers and charities. Through a network of Charity Organization Societies, the reformers sought to make poor relief rational, scientific—and stingy. Robert Treat Paine of Boston gave the group its motto: “Not Alms, but a Friend.” [...]

The Charity Organization Societies pressed private charities to focus on moral reform rather than simply provide aid and argued that government-run public assistance was counter-productive. “Indiscriminate almsgiving is a crime against society,” complained reformer William Slocum in 1882. Reformers promoted this message through conferences, journals and the popular press—most of them underwritten by wealthy employers. The effort paid off. By the late 1890s, 39 of the 50 largest U.S. cities had reconfigured cash assistance programs to reduce amounts of public aid and subsidize moral reform. As the poet John Boyle O’Reilly wrote, in verse, “organized charity scrimped and iced / in the name of a cautious, statistical Christ.”

Alongside this history, Pimpare draws parallels with its 20th Century counterpart: the campaign against welfare that culminated in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Like the charity reform movement, the anti-welfare forces were organized and bankrolled by a group of wealthy individuals and institutions, such as the Coors and Olin foundations. They too built a network of organizations to share information and make a case to the public. And they made the morality of the poor—a question that had receded from view during the New Deal through the Great Society—central to the debate. Anti-welfare authors such as Charles Murray in Losing Ground demonized “welfare mothers” for laziness and bearing children out of wedlock. And they blamed federal public assistance programs, especially Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), for creating a “welfare trap” that kept recipients in poverty and promoted anti-social values. These “new Victorians” got many of their wishes in 1996, when Congress voted to abolish AFDC, drive down caseloads through punitive sanctions and replace federal guarantees with block grants to state governments.

Pimpare offers a defense of generous public assistance programs on the grounds that they benefit all working-class people. Aid gives a worker with a marginal income an option—the opportunity to avoid the labor market when it pays too little or proves demeaning and the so-called “marriage market” when potential spouses are abusive or inadequate. This, Pimpare argues, boosts incomes across the low-wage workforce because employers must offer higher wages to find employees. “American businesses, especially those that needed low-wage, low-skilled workers, clearly understood the economic benefits of welfare reform just as their counterparts had over a century ago.” Too often, welfare reform simply means replacing union workers with “workfare” recipients making sub-minimum wages.

There is considerable truth to this argument, but I think it should come with significant qualification. Opposition to U.S. welfare policy as it existed before 1996 did not come exclusively from the corporate-funded conservative propagandists profiled by Pimpare. Some liberals worried that providing long-term public assistance to healthy adults violated norms of fair play and mutual responsibility that they used to defend other redistributive public policies. Others thought that the specific design of AFDC created economic incentives—for example, to take under-the-table work that could be hidden from welfare agencies instead of jobs in the formal economy—with unfortunate social consequences. Still others believed (incorrectly) that welfare mostly served African-Americans and resented it on racist grounds. By turning the entire debate into a contest between neo-Victorians and their ideological opposites, Pimpare fails to address the public opinion in between. As a result, he never explains why AFDC proved so vulnerable to attack in the first place.

No one ever explained better than Alexis de Tocqueville, who did so largely before the fact, why generous public assistance is detrimental not just to the recipients but to society as a whole.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 12, 2004 11:12 PM


That linked earlier post of yours, about charity and welfare and taxes and isolation, is a good one.

Very good. Articulates some of what I have been thinking about for years.

Posted by: Eugene S. at September 13, 2004 10:06 AM

Aid gives a worker... [T]he opportunity to avoid the labor market...

Exactly. That's one problematic aspect of aid, that for some, it displaces work.

Pace Mr. Decker, welfare did mostly serve African-Americans, and other minorities.
True, the majority of people receiving aid were and are white, but analyzed as a percentage of race/group, welfare clearly served a higher fraction of blacks and every other minority faction.
What is irritating to me is that I'd bet my next year's income that Mr. Decker knows the above.

Although I don't know this for sure, my guess is that the group most served by welfare today is polygamous splinter Mormon families.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 13, 2004 4:59 PM

The problem in the 19th century was the labor market avoiding them.

It's hard to read, say, Mayhew and take that sort of stuff seriously.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 13, 2004 9:16 PM

I agree.

Fortunately, we now live in the 21st century, where anyone who wants a job, can get a job.
Not necessarily the job they want, where they want it, but better than nada.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 14, 2004 1:25 AM

Very true, but then people ought to stop making historical arguments about it

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 15, 2004 3:06 PM

To the extent that the historical argument centers around morality, it doesn't really matter what the rate of employment was, vs. now.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 15, 2004 9:02 PM