Origins of Social Security – Part 3 – The Poor in Post-Colonial America

The myth that early  America  lacked significant poverty has been comprehensively debunked today. This myth is based on modern free market fundamentalism which implies that since there was an abundance of land and resources and a lack of labor; that the Law of Supply and Demand meant that most people were doing well. Of course free market fundamentalism does not exist in reality and usually the resources are monopolized by a small group at the top while a huge number of people is completely excluded from their benefits. This was also the case in both colonial and post-colonial  America .

While there was an enormous amount of land and resources available, they were strictly controlled by a small group of landed gentry that could call on the law and the military to enforce their control. The result, then as now, is that while a small select group of people did very well (including most of the Founding Fathers), many people were completely left behind and utterly destitute. As the poor were much less likely to leave written records, and because it does not fit in with the preferred patriotic narrative of American history, the poor and their circumstances has been largely overlooked in U.S. history. In recent decades, a great deal has been written about this less than ideal side of American history, most notably, Howard Zinn and his immensely popular “A People’s History of the United States.”

In the last article of this series we showed that not only was poverty – and public relief measures – a problem, it was a growing problem in colonial  America . This problem did not go away with independence; instead it became more pronounced. The entire economy of all thirteen colonies was thrown into disarray by the war and the severing of ties with Britain. In the face of this crisis, public attitudes towards the poor hardened. In the cities, where most of the poor were concentrated, the new call was for getting rid of the poor through workhouses and “poor farms.” By the 1830s, these types of measures, which effectively secluded the poor receiving public relief from the rest of the community, had come to dominate poor relief in the United States.

The only real benefit for the poor stemming from the revolutionary war and independence was in the form of the pensions offered to men that actively fought in the war and widows that lost their husbands in it. The first such pension was authorized by the Continental Congress in 1776, but it went through several revisions, being revised in 1778, 1780, 1783, 1789, 1792 and finally in 1806. These changing pensions generally only applied to soldiers that were killed or disabled in active service and, as many poor had been recruited into the U.S. forces, it represented a stable income for those that qualified. If a soldier was killed, his widow would receive half the soldier’s wages. If a soldier was disabled and unable to make a living, he would receive half his military pay on a regular basis.

For the rest of the poor, the public view became more hostile and uncharitable. The poor were viewed as prone to vice and crime and their position in society evolved from one of being unfortunate to one of being undesirable. This evolution in the perception of poverty and the poor justified excluding them from society by locking them away in institutions, almshouses, and even jails. This became the dominate paradigm by the 1830s and 1840s and the older poor laws that at least helped the “impotent” poor actively came under attack.

Source by Wendy Polisi

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