Before Welfare

    Poverty is a serious topic for a blog called “Sun Breaks,” but a friend posed a good question the other day. This blog is my attempt at an answer.

     “What did people do before welfare?” she asked. “Was living so much easier in the ‘olden days” that people didn’t need it?”

Disaster upon disaster…when the fields blew away

    Her question brought to mind a story my eighty-year-old father told some years ago.  When he was a child during the Midwest-Dust-Bowl and Great-Depression years, his family worked as tenant farmers. He loved his mother–my grandmother–who was ill with a neurological disease. The doctor often came to attend her, even though the family had nothing with which to pay him.

    Then one day Grandma suffered a serious nosebleed that could not be stopped. Grandpa told my father to hurry to town for the doctor. Tears trickled down Dad’s cheeks as he told how he ran for miles across the prairie, only to be told that this time the doctor would not come unless he paid in advance. Even though his mother pulled through, the humiliation and sorrow of being unable to help her still broke my father’s heart years later.

    No, living wasn’t easier in the olden days.

    Many factors have always operated to plunge people into poverty. In the early years of our country, people learned their trades by apprenticing themselves to employers, with the expectation of being hired at artisans’ wages when their apprenticeships were complete. Often, when the training was finished, employers fired apprentices rather than pay full wage. Unemployed apprentices and adult workers usually lived in small communities where available work was limited. Since most had no transportation besides their own two feet, many people had to leave their home and families behind as they wandered to other areas in search of work.
    The industrial revolution played a part in the disruption of how people earned their living. The threshing machine was a reason for my grandparents’ descent into poverty. Prior to its invention, farmers needed many hands to flail out the grain. But a threshing machine could do in minutes what formerly took hours of human labor.

     My grandparents lived on their own farm until a fast-talking salesman convinced Grandpa to invest everything he had in one of the newfangled machines. “You can hire out to the neighbors and easily make the payments,” he said. But the salesman convinced so many other farmers in that part of North Dakota to make the same investment that Grandpa couldn’t find enough threshing to pay for the machine. He lost the farm and everything they owned.

    Most common labor in the early years of our country took place out of doors, but when winter weather closed down work on canals, roads, and farms, workers had no way to support themselves. Often they had to go to poorhouses, bleak and dreaded institutions meant to care for poverty-stricken people but also to discourage dependence upon public welfare. In the late 1800s, every county had a poorhouse. Usually, a farm was connected to it, where the occupants were required to work to help pay for their upkeep. Rules were strict, and care was minimal. Many elderly people, who had no relatives or friends to look after them, ended up there, as well as children with or without their families.

A County Poorhouse With its Residents

    Periodic economic depressions also plunged people into poverty, just as is happening today. Throughout the Great Depression, when a quarter of the workforce in the United States was unemployed, hundreds of men rode the rails in search of something–anything– to work at.

    In 1935, the US Congress passed a Social Security Act, which provided a system of Federal old-age benefits and set the basic framework for our present system of social welfare.

    When my father married and brought his wife to Washington State, his aged father and invalid mother came too. Grandpa could no longer work, but the Social Security Act now provided assistance which people called “relief.” It wasn’t much, but it helped with rent and food. It took a long time for the United States to climb out of the Great Depression.

    My father never considered asking for public assistance during lean times when I was growing up. He worked hard when paying work was available, and when it wasn’t, we lived on limited unemployment compensation. He made and sold cedar shakes for roofs and found other ways to supplement unemployment payments. Like many other people, we raised and canned much of our own food, made our own clothes, and lived frugally. We didn’t consider ourselves poor.

    Everyone has an opinion about the safety net we today call “welfare.” I think of Jesus telling his disciples, “The poor you will always have with you.” That’s true, but we can all be grateful for the abolition of the poorhouse and the assistance that is now available for those who truly need it.

Going on Hope and Not Much Else
Migrant Mother and Children

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