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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

Though Republican hostility to the New Deal isn't new, the Democratic embrace of language that has long been used to undermine belief in government is. Announcing a pay freeze for federal workers, Obama reasoned that "small businesses and families are tightening their belts. Their government should, too." With nearly one in ten people unable to find work, Democrats compete with Republicans over who can sound more concerned about the debt and deficit, despite a longstanding economic consensus that a deficit is a good thing to have in times of slow growth and high unemployment.

What is dangerous about Social Security is that it works. It is evidence that people can do a better job insuring against life's cruel downturns by working together and pooling resources than by going it alone in the market. If the financial market and its representatives in Washington succeed in undermining Social Security, they will not only have access to trillions of dollars, but will have dealt a blow to a leading symbol of the potential collective action. It's no coincidence that cutting Social Security is often described as a "signal" to financial markets. Even Obama, after his election, echoed such language. "We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else's," Obama said before his inauguration.

And Democrats pander to the relentless fear that an offer of kindness may wind up helping someone who either doesn't need the aid or who is in need but is to blame for their pitiful circumstances. President Obama articulated that worry in a weighted response to a question about why his attempts to slow foreclosures had been largely unsuccessful.

During a meeting with progressive bloggers, Obama was asked to defend his administration's failure to stem the foreclosure tide. The president's worry, he said, was that his anti-foreclosure program might accidentally help people who didn't deserve it. "The biggest challenge is how do you make sure that you are helping those who really deserve help, and, if they get some temporary help, can get back on their feet," Obama said, specifically adding that he didn't want the effort to assist "people who through no fault of their own just can't afford their house anymore because of the change in housing values or their incomes don't support it."

FDR and Obama traveled the same course in reverse: Roosevelt came into office a deficit hawk, pushed to balance the budget and cut federal worker pay. He quickly realized his error and turned around. He had the room to maneuver, however, because poverty had become so widespread that it lost its stigma. It could finally be addressed with a level head rather than a wag of the finger.

Before then, however, the nation was just prosperous enough for those with a little to look down upon those with less. When Adeline Nott was committed to a Portland, Maine poorhouse in the 1830s, she challenged her detention. The Maine Supreme Court ruled against her. "The indigent has no claim to be supported in idleness," the judges wrote. "[T]heir poverty generally grows out of an unwillingness to labor, or is occasioned by reckless and improvident habits."

Giving financial support to the jobless, known then as "outdoor relief" -- as opposed to the "indoor relief" of the poorhouse -- will only "encourage the sturdy beggar and profligate vagrant to become pensioners up the public funds," argued John Yates, an influential progressive from the mid-19th Century. A cash payment would "relax individual exertion by unnerving the arm of industry" and lessen the "desire of honest independence."

Critics of the New Deal, such as Beck, argue that the increased size of government it brought about has eroded Americans' freedom.

"It really buys freedom," said Nancy Altman, author of "The Battle For Social Security" and an advocate for the program. "If you don't have economic security, you lose your freedom in a very demeaning way." There's data to back up Altman's claim: Engelhardt and Gruber found that as benefits increased, the number of elderly people living with their families dropped by more than half. And, most noticeably, poorhouses shut down.

"Social Security -- this is one of the things of which my dad was very proud -- closed eleven hundred old folks' homes in New York. Eleven hundred. And that was just one example, but it tells you what it did all over the country," said Dingell, adding that before Social Security, "everybody and his second cousin piled in with their families. I had relatives that came to stay with my dad and mom I didn't even know were relatives. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure they are. And my grandad on Dad's side, who threw Dad out of the house, came to live with Dad. Dad was the only one of his kids who'd take care of him. He was, quite frankly, the only one who could afford to do so, because Pop was making a fairly decent living during the war, but he was supporting a whole tribe of Dingells and Selmerses and a whole bunch of others who had other Polish names but were related." Americans have not forgotten how to stack up -- the latest Census numbers show multifamily households have surged to their highest numbers since 1968 -- and Engelhardt and Gruber find that cuts to Social Security will only fuel that trend.

Poorhouses assaulted freedom in more painful ways, as well. One winter in the midst of the Great Depression, a "Mr. Green" in Rockingham County, New Hampshire was struggling much like the rest of the nation. "I am informed that you are three months back on your rent. The understanding that I had in your case was that if the county furnished the food, you were to take care for your own rent," wrote a county commissioner to Green on Jan. 26, 1937, one of the coldest winters of the century. "If you do not 'snap out of it' and get to working and paying your rent, my next call on you will be with the police officer and will take your whole family to the county farm. The state of New Hampshire will place your children. A word to the wise is sufficient."

The talk of taking Green's children was no vacant threat. In most states, children were not allowed to live in poorhouses. Families forced into them would be split up, with children either bound for orphanages, foster homes or apprenticeships. Pennsylvania, which banned poorhouses from hosting children between the ages of two and 16, was typical. Hundreds of children in just one home, the Chester County Poorhouse, were "bounded out" -- given to other families -- in the middle of the 19th Century, according to an archive of their names that survives.