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The Poorhouse: Aunt Winnie, Glenn Beck, And The Politics Of The New Deal

Posted:   |  Updated: 07/11/2013 10:44 am EDT

An employee of Associated Charities, a private organization dedicated to alleviating poverty in the District of Columbia, met an old black woman carrying a basket of cinders near the dump in Southeast D.C. on a bitterly cold day in December 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 8x10 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 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.

"In the fall of '98 agent asked her to go into the almshouse, but she would not consent. During the storm in February '99, she was kept from perishing with a great effort. Every visit, and they were many, had to be made through snow up to the waist. It was during these visits that the promise was made that before another winter she would take refuge in an almshouse."

When the weather warmed, Aunt Winnie backed off her promise to go to the almshouse. The social worker started to play hardball.

"It would be hard to say which, the agent or the applicant, suffered the more, because through all this distress had sprung up a loving confidence and perfect trust that seemed cruel to deceive. Attention and assistance were withdrawn gradually."

It worked: In July, Aunt Winnie relented and said she'd go to the almshouse as soon she could sell her cabin. Nobody would buy it, so the social worker told her to tear it down and sell it for kindling. At 2 p.m. on Aug. 23, 1899, the social worker showed up in a wagon.

"[S]he was sitting on her trunk, without a stick of the cabin to be seen. Without a murmur she dropped a courtsey to the bare spot where once stood the cabin and turned away. After an affectionate separation in the almshouse the agent came away feeling that for such a balmy day in August it was a trying task to perform, but for winter's blizzards, a blessed relief. In case of her death a promise has been made to her that the general secretary of the Associated Charities will keep her body from potter's field."

Aunt Winnie, whose story is preserved in the archives of the Historical Society of Washington, had been sent to an American institution that was by then some 300 years old and went by a variety of names: the county farm, the poor farm, the almshouse or, most often, simply the poorhouse. She would probably have been surprised to learn that more than a hundred years later, after the virtual eradication of elderly poverty, a powerful political movement would materialize with the mission of returning to the hands-off social policies that made the poorhouse the nation's only refuge for the jobless, the aged, the infirm and the disabled.

That movement's most outspoken proponent is Fox News host Glenn Beck, who doesn't merely pine for the pre-New Deal era in general, but regularly prevails upon his audience to recognize the particular genius of some of the period's presidents, whose ideologies of inaction he holds up as the American ideal.

Democratic President Grover Cleveland is one such hero. When Beck and guest Joseph Lehman were discussing the proper roles of welfare and charity this summer, Lehman noted that one "extreme [position] is, you've got welfare only as a last resort and all assistance is private."

It wasn't too extreme for Beck. "And this is where we actually were a hundred years ago," Beck said, rightly thinking -- or not -- of people in Aunt Winnie's situation.

"We used to be here. In fact, Grover Cleveland has this excellent statement. In 1887, President Cleveland said, 'Though the people may support their government, the government shall not support the people,'" Lehman responded.

"That's great," said Beck.

While lifting up presidents like Cleveland, he wants to tear down their successors. At Beck University, he offers a course titled "Presidents You Should Hate." Part one focuses on Woodrow Wilson, part two on Franklin Roosevelt.

Until those men rose to power, the political field belonged to politicians in the command of business. Cleveland, however, is a distant second in the Beck view of the world to Calvin Coolidge. Beck told his audience this August that Coolidge was Ronald Reagan's favorite president, and that he was "one of best presidents I think we've ever had that you don't know very much about."

Coolidge earned his place in Beck's heart for refusing to send federal help to the Gulf region during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. "And under 30 feet of water, hundreds of people died. This is the Katrina of the 1920s," said Beck. "And, to show you the difference in how far we've come with progressives, at the time that this happened, nobody was standing on their roof with signs saying, 'Help me.' They were helping themselves."

Whatever the victims of the flood may have done, Wall Street certainly helped itself during Coolidge's reign from 1923 to 1929. The Dow ran from under a hundred to a high of nearly four hundred. Corporate profits and consumer debt soared. Coolidge slashed taxes. By 1929, the top 0.1 percent had income equal to 42 percent of all Americans and held 34 percent of all the savings -- while eight in ten had no savings at all.

Those eight-in-ten people without savings had no cushion against the economic crashes that relentlessly afflicted the economy and had no relief against the one calamity that is entirely foreseeable: old age.

"Most people, unless they were well-to-do, had two options," said University of Pennsylvania historian Michael B. Katz. "One was living with their kids, the other was the poorhouse."

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