News & Politics

Republican Nation: The New Poor Laws

To see what choices welfare reformers will embrace, we only have to examine the preferences of their 19th-century counterparts.

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The New Poor Laws: How Mr. Gingrich Brought Back Tiny Tim
January 10, 1995

THE PUSH TO END WELFARE is more than just another front in the war on big govern­ment and high taxes. In the name of reform, America is about to cross a gigantic social fron­tier.

What’s at stake today is not whether the dependent poor will shiver in unheated apart­ments and sink slowly into malnutrition. That was the ’80s, when the real value of welfare grants dropped nationally by an average of 25 per cent. And city governments cut costs fur­ther by “churning” — arbitrarily lopping welfare recipients off the rolls and making them reapply.

In the ’90s, a bipartisan consensus has emerged to take us beyond administrative harass­ment and immiserating budget cuts. In this national movement, there are no hawks and doves — only Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The Republicans are the tough, unyielding Bolsheviks, uncompromising in their zeal to abolish the exploitation of the taxpayer by the indigent. The Democrats are the Hamlet-like Mensheviks, tortured by moral scruples, concerned that the pace of change is too fast. But neither party disagrees on principle: Both insist that the old order is cor­rupt and must be eliminated. And since no one opposes it, the revolution accelerates.

The latest proposals from the Republican-led House Finance Committee contain provisions that make the Contract With America seem like the New Deal. Not just because of 50 per cent cuts in the value of some grants. Or because more than half the children who now qualify for aid would be ren­dered ineligible because they were born out of wedlock. More funda­mentally, the new measures strip the indigent of their right to receive public assistance based on need.

As in the last century, when the urban gentry — chiefly property owners and their allies in bank­ing — passed sweeping legislation against the poor, the current plan for welfare reform will produce not just a decline in the standard of liv­ing but a change in the civil status of the poor, stripping them of rights they have had for more than 50 years. Taken together with legislation passed in state houses and city halls across the country, these federal proposals amount to a new set of poor laws — that 19th-century term for regulating the underclass.

The inspiration for enacting poor laws in America came from Britain, where, in 1834, a parliamentary commission met to rectify the damage done to the incentive structure of the poor by well-meaning 18th-century Tories — the ’60s liberals of their day. The result of the commission’s deliber­ations was to privatize state charitable institutions, crimi­nalize begging, set up private “mendicancy police,” jail va­grants, roust the homeless from public shelters, and abolish what Victorians called “outdoor relief.” The urban elites insisted as a condition of receiving assistance that poor peo­ple live and perform hard labor in a workhouse.

What makes us willing to step again into this same river of urban misery and calculated cruelty? Why are we willing to reconsider social Darwinist notions that poverty has a ba­sis in biology? And that, as an hereditary pariah group, the poor no longer qualify for basic human rights?

THAT THE POOR have any rights at all in this coun­try is largely due to the passage, in 1935, of the So­cial Security Act. At the time, all across America, state and local relief programs had gone bankrupt. New York City didn’t even have such a program. The 1897 City Charter forbade it.

Essentially, Roosevelt’s New Deal and Tru­man’s Fair Deal created two primary entitlements. First, the Social Security Act gave states access to unlimited matching federal funds. And then, in 1950, the federal government granted in­dividuals entitlement status, depriv­ing states and cities of the power to deny the needy.

The Social Security Act contained deep flaws. It allowed localities to establish different benefit levels, which could never be standardized by the federal government. This crazy-quilt pattern kept the U.S. from mandating welfare as a national program, the way European nations do. And the provisions for unemployment compensation — at the urging of Southern congressmen — left out blacks by ex­empting maids and farm workers. But for all its defects, the Social Security Act did grant poor people entitlement sta­tus. Local governments can’t simply turn them away with the explanation, “That’s all folks, the money’s run out.” If that happens, officials are obligated to raise more.

But in the new welfare consensus, state and individual entitlements disappear. Automatic matching funds are transformed into “block grants” administered by the states. Spending caps are imposed on programs for the poor. Even legal immigrants become ineligible for aid. Cities and states will again be able to dump the indigent by a competitive lowering of benefits. The few states — like New York — whose constitutions guarantee the right to aid will be threatened with inundation: Elsewhere, local officials will need only a shrug and a show of empty hands to fend off the importunate poor.

The real issue looming today is whether America will once again draw the line against the growing millions of its urban poor, turning a deprived economic class into a de­spised social caste, propelling the poor into the presumptive criminal status they enjoyed throughout most of the 19th century. The new poor laws could create just such an outcome. In this respect, they are exactly like the old poor laws — even down to small particulars.

Last fall, fusion mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared war on soup kitchens. He demanded that the City Council close ranks behind his decision to deny funds for those who would feed the hungry. In the 1890s, fusion mayor William L. Strong led a similar crusade against permissive soup dispensers. These philanthropists helped the deserv­ing and undeserving indiscrimi­nately, leaving them more money “for gin palaces and low public houses.”

“Workfare,” invented by the Ford Foundation in the mid 1970s, doesn’t mean work at fair wages. It means working off the value of your welfare check, which in some states can mean a wage of less than $1.25 an hour. It revives the 19th-century work test, a key element in the orig­inal poor laws. Before allowing the indigent to eat, the New York Char­ity Organization Society took male applicants down to their West 28th Street wood yard. If they chopped vigorously enough, they might get fed. (Or, if an interviewer discovered a pattern of dependency, they might be sent to jail.) Female paupers were taken to the COS laundry to see if they could really scrub. Such measures rehearse the small humiliations and petty irritants the 19th century inflicted on the poor.

Rudolph Giuliani’s criminaliza­tion of squeegee men and beggars outside the ATMs ominously repris­es the furious campaigns against begging and vagrancy that began in the 1870s. The battle reached a peak in 1911, when the state legislature, at the behest of the New York City COS, passed a law that created upstate prison camps for city beggars.

The idea that the dependent poor could be transformed once again into quasi-criminals hardly seems far-fetched any­more. The punitive and ascetic 1990s already resemble the 1890s more than the comparatively liberal 1970s, when the dominant idea of welfare reform was to give every Ameri­can a guaranteed income. That was Richard Nixon’s plan!

What happened? One easy explanation is that “Reagan’s the one.” For the left these days, Reagan still serves as in­tellectual Hamburger Helper to pad out our understand­ing of painful changes we can’t quite yet grasp — from the fall of the Soviet Union to the decline of the U.S. labor move­ment. But we need to get past our fixation on Ronnie. A Democrat is chief executive now.

Those who prize simple explanations could far more plau­sibly blame Clinton for rekindling the spirit of poorhouse America. As New York Times welfare writer Jason De Parle observes, “Clinton has taken a tougher stance on welfare than any other president.” It was he who literally took a page from Murray’s book. It was Clinton, not Reagan, who insisted on the two-year cutoff; Clinton, not Reagan or Bush, who campaigned to “end welfare as we know it.”

But Clinton’s responsibility for America’s rightward shift on welfare ought not to be stretched too far. To advert to the postmodern idiom, “Clinton” is not a subject. As a signifier, he simply expresses a certain malaise of the Democratic Par­ty. He’s a vector of various polling results, not an agent of so­cial change. If the welfare reform parade hadn’t been com­ing down the street, if the Ford and Rockefeller foundations hadn’t already agreed to pay for the band and the uniforms, Clinton wouldn’t have stepped off the curb to lead it.

Nor can the feminization of poverty explain the resump­tion of America’s class war against the poor. In 1984, Bar­bara Ehrenreich and Frances Fox Piven predicted that by the year 2000, the poverty population would consist entirely of women and dependent children. Feminists argued that the whole binary structure of wel­fare — “male” programs like unem­ployment don’t have the built-in surveillance requirements of AFDC — as well as the growing hostility to welfare expressed nothing less than a patriar­chal backlash.

But the welfare recipients under the most severe attack are those drawing General Assistance (“Home Relief” in New York). These are poor people in need of emergency aid who can’t qual­ify under any other program. They’re not blind, old, disabled, or caring for dependent children. In New York, their number has grown to nearly a quarter of a million — at a rate 10 times faster than the growth of the AFDC caseload. Reformers don’t just want to discourage or cut back on Home Re­lief. They simply want to abolish the program. But the point is that Home Relief recipients are overwhelmingly male. The angry focus on this program has fiscal not patriarchal roots: AFDC, SSI, and food stamps are chiefly fund­ed by the feds, but every dollar of Home Relief comes from local taxes.

What about the power of ideas? Is the ground burning under the feet of the dependent poor because Charles Murray and his fellow neocons developed powerful proposals for welfare reform? Whatever one says about Murray, no one can accuse him of having an original thought. Not a single one of Murray’s claims, not a single criterion for handling the poor, would have surprised Thomas Malthus. In fact, Murray’s main rant — that welfare causes black girls to have extra kids — is a false coin handed down directly from Parson Malthus, whose 18th-century Law of Population was specifically designed to afflict poor welfare recipients and comfort rural landlords.

Most of the remaining items in Murray’s policy invento­ry consist of variations on Jeremy Bentham’s “less eligibil­ity principle.” As Bentham’s disciples put it in 1834, in the famous Chadwick Commission Report that inspired the Vic­torian poor laws, the pauper’s “situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the independent laborer of the lowest classes.” Translat­ed from 19th-century policyspeak, the idea was to keep workers from applying for relief and to prevent paupers from staying on the dole. Conditions have to be made worse for the pauper than anything likely to be experienced by the poorest worker. Very simply, if the worker’s conditions are terrible, the pauper’s must be made revolting.

Without a whole network of foundations, think tanks, grants, and conservative publishing houses amplifying the low wattage of his contribution, it’s unlikely that so many Americans would have paid attention to Mr. Murray or his fellows. These people brought us welfare reform in the same sense that the Budweiser Clydesdales bring us beer. Some­one hitched them to the wagon. Who is that? And why now?

WERE YOU AWARE that the real estate project most associated with the Rockefeller family­ — Rockefeller Center — is going down the toilet? The New York Times business pages suggest they and their Japanese partners, Mitsubishi Estates, will renege this year on the mortgage payments they owe and simply walk away from Rockefeller Center, Christmas tree and all. That’s on Fifth Avenue. The downtown real estate situation is much worse. Vacancy rates in the area approach 30 percent, and rents continue to fall.

That’s why the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association, headed by a vice chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank, came up with a massive bailout plan called the “Low­er Manhattan Project.” The Wall Street area stands as prob­ably the most subsidized square mile of real estate in the world. Battery Park City alone last year got a $127.8 million subsidy. But aggressive Wall Street panhandlers want more aid. They want the money to convert their office buildings to luxury rentals, to lower property taxes, and simply to wreck some of their superannuated buildings at taxpayer ex­pense. Promoters of the Lower Manhattan Project appear to have worked out a deal with Giuliani to get upwards of $234 million for these projects. At least that’s the bill for the first three years.

On the same day Mayor Giuliani announced the $234 million sub­sidy plan for the real estate rich, he proposed cutting public assistance payments by another $300 million. The mayor, of course, insists that Wall Street subsidies don’t take money out of the budget that could go to the poor. His plan provides seed for eco­nomic growth. Welfare for the real es­tate rich will produce jobs. But Nelson Rockefeller was just the first of many to promise the same thing billions of dol­lars ago, and downtown has fewer jobs now than in the ’60s. Downtown real­tors are simply shoving their way to the front of the municipal soup kitchen, elbowing aside the poor.

The same struggle drives welfare re­form at the national level. The Contract With America seeks to have welfare cut­backs finance capital-gains tax cuts and increased military expenditure. This­ — and not more diffuse cultural anxieties — ­is why it’s Murray Time again.

Welfare reform has an added urgency because poverty has grown to 19th-cen­tury proportions. The numbers of peo­ple on relief are far larger than the pub­lished figures reveal. In New York City, the official tally of 1.1 million is dwarfed by the number of people who actually receive aid from the basic means-tested programs. AFDC, SSI, Home Relief, and “Medicaid only” recipients total 1.8 million people. One out of four New Yorkers.

Naturally, welfare reformers, whose political base is in the suburbs and the white neighborhoods in the outer bor­oughs, focus their attacks on inner-city welfare moms. But they also want to take money away from disabled men. And from elderly ladies too. Cutting off old and disabled SSI recipients is all part of the Contract With America’s Personal Responsibility Act. Denying nurs­ing-home care figures heavily in Giuliani’s plan to cut Med­icaid by one-third.

Our modern elites need some higher justification for their calculated cruelty than Christianity and Judaism can provide. This is why social Darwinism is back. “What do the social classes owe each other?” asked America’s most famous 19th-­century social scientist, Yalie William Graham Sumner, in a bestselling book by that title. “Nothing,” he answered.

People chatter about “the right to existence,” complained Sumner. But where do we find this “right to existence”? Not in nature. There, he explained, all we see is a pitiless struggle between individuals. Go ahead, says Sumner, leg­islate such a right. What will happen? “It is plain,” he says, “that we shall not abolish the struggle for existence; we shall only bring it about that some men must fight that struggle for others.” Some people’s taxes will support others’ right to existence. What a waste!

Look at the poor drunkard in the gutter, exclaims Sumn­er. You want someone to help him, but your pity is perverse. “A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be. Na­ture is working away at him to get him out of the way. Nine-­tenths of our measures for preventing vice are really protec­tive towards it, because they ward off the penalty.”

If we map the social-policy landscape over the 150 years since America began rapid urbanization, what we find are jagged cycles of meanness and relative liberality. Permitting “public outdoor relief” and then angrily taking it away. These swings in mood and policy correspond roughly to the business cycle. And more particularly in big cities to the real estate cycle.

The meanness phase of the cycle begins when the real estate rich start to feel pinched. In the boom phase, they’re too busy speculating to worry about the bur­den of the poor. But when the real estate crunch comes, their incomes fall. They find themselves struggling to pay the banks. At the same time, as the hard times intensify, welfare rolls soar, putting pressure on the budget. Politicians seek to raise taxes. Real estate responds with a crusade against the poor and the urban machine that coddles the undeserving.

Today’s elites react not to the “feminization of poverty” or because blacks get AFDC checks disproportionately. They act because they are acted upon. They want to get rid of welfare because, with real estate revenues being squeezed, they want to appropriate the public revenue spent on the poor.

Social historians have misunderstood the 19th-century charity reformers. They weren’t just rich. They were rich real estate developers. As such they were city shapers and planners. They saw welfare expenses not just in terms of the tax burden, but in terms of lost opportunities.

The president of COS, Robert DeFor­est, who successfully led the battle to get rid of public outdoor relief in New York, was the principal developer of Forest Hills, Queens. He was financed by his co-reformer, Otto Bannard, vice president of New York Life Insurance. In their 1897 crusade against outdoor relief, DeForest and Bannard were following in the footsteps of Seth Low, who’d gotten rid of out­door relief as far back as 1870 when he was mayor of Brooklyn. Low, who inherited millions from his father in the opium trade, was the largest landowner in Brooklyn. He’d founded Brooklyn Charities with oth­er developers who’d invested heavily in what were then outlying areas of Brooklyn. What united these charity reformers were their speculations. They needed the city to invest heavily in streets, gas, and lights, as well as transportation, to make their in­vestments pay off.

The whole reason for the creation of Greater New York in 1898 was to grab hold of the Manhattan tax base to finance these projects. Developers insisted on pro­ductive, not unproductive, expenditure. Roads, not relief.

In New York City, in the aftermath of the great depres­sion of ’93, sleeping in the police station remained the last resort for the homeless. These lodging houses served as shel­ters for tens of thousands of New Yorkers. Until, that is, the election of the fusion administration of William Strong in 1896. Strong appointed Teddy Roosevelt to lead the New York police board. And Roosevelt persuaded the Charter Revision Commission “to remove from the organic law of the city the clause giving to the police the care of vagrants.”

In 1897, Strong also succeeded in get­ting the Raines Law passed. This meant, literally, no more free lunches. Bars could no longer serve them. Welfare reformers argued they attracted the homeless.

Next, New York’s welfare reformers turned to suppressing street begging and vagrancy. The COS campaign compiled an exhaustive list of street beggars. Based on this information, the COS’s own squadron of “mendicancy police” was able to round up beggars and turn them over to the police.

In 1896, the organiza­tion turned to Teddy Roosevelt. They asked him to establish a mendi­cancy police unit inside the department. Teddy was the scion of one of New York’s richest fami­lies. An uncle, James Roosevelt, had founded the Chemical Bank. The fam­ily led the redevelopment of Park Avenue after the New York Central de­pressed its tracks beneath street level. Theodore Sr. was president of the New York State Charities Aid Association. James was a member of the COS. So when Teddy was ap­proached by the COS, ac­cording to one witness, he “listened attentively for the few moments it took for him to grasp the idea,” and then ordered it done.

SCHOLARS ARGUE over whether it was Stalin or Hit­ler who invented labor camps. In fact, labor-camp proposals predate both the Soviet and Nazi regimes. As ear­ly as the turn of the centu­ry, New York charitable authorities promoted camps as a solution to the vagrancy problem.

Having been rousted from shelters and driven out of bars, vagrants were more underfoot than ever. Especially after the very sharp depression of 1907. As usual, questions of economy drove policy discussions. The State Charities Aid Association counted up the number of vagrants in peniten­tiaries, jails, workhouses, and almshouses in 1908. Authorities estimated the cost at more than $2 million. The vagrancy prob­lem could be more cheap­ly handled by the creation of a state labor colony.

At the prodding of the reformers, state legislators passed a bill in 1911 that called for the “detention, humane discipline, in­struction, and reformation of male adults committed therefore as tramps or vagrants.” A 900-acre tract in Dutchess County was set aside for the camp. But the next incoming governor, William Sulzer refused to appropriate the funds. Reformers howled. Sulzer was actually impeached a few months later. But the camp was nev­er built.

Flash forward to 1994: House Speaker Newt shook up not only or­dinary folks but some hard­line welfare reformers with his insistence that kids born out of wedlock be sent straight to orphanages. “Horrifying!” exclaimed the American Enterprise Insti­tute’s Douglas Besharov, who performed a careful cost-benefit analysis of the proposal. Outrageously expensive! It turns out orphanages cost $15,000 a year per child. At present il­legitimacy rates, it would cost $70 billion a year to put all the kids born out of wedlock in these new Boys Towns. The entire AFDC program costs only $21 bil­lion. Besharov concludes orphanages would have a powerful deterring effect on young girls thinking about getting pregnant. But not one worth $50 billion.

Naturally there were sensitive moral thinkers like Be­sharov around in the 19th century. Their logic remains our logic. To see what choic­es present-day child-welfare reformers will embrace, we only have to examine the preferences of their 19th­-century counterparts.

The ordinal costs of child­-welfare alternatives haven’t changed since then. Or­phanages are the most cost­ly. Payments to single mother are less costly. And sheer indifference is least costly. Naturally, number three was the optimal choice for those dealing with the problem of homeless children in New York. But they faced a threat.

In 1898, while charity re­formers relaxed their customary vigilance, the legislature passed the Ahern Bill. It allowed public support for the children of widowed mothers. The measure would have used public funds to get these children out of orphanages and reunite them ­with their mothers.

Charity-movement repre­sentatives thundered against the bill. They had just ren­dered outdoor relief illegal; now the legislators were sneaking public outdoor re­lief in through the back door. Outdoor relief, argued a lobbyist from the State Charities Aid Association, was “a system which, in large cities, has always been found to promote pauperism, to discourage self-reliance and thrift, and to be especially li­able to flagrant abuses.” The welfare reformers convinced Mayor Strong. He persuaded the governor, who vetoed the bill that had been passed by the state house.

It had been official New York welfare policy since the 1870s to encourage family integrity. State orphanages didn’t even exist. But with child abandonment becom­ing an ever more serious problem, local officials began to resort to placing orphans in private orphanages — which received per capita funds from state institutions.

In an 1896 investigation, the State Charities Aid Association demonstrated terrible child abuse. One state supported orphanage, the Ladies’ Deborah Nursery, spent a total of 27 cents a day on its charges. Even in the 1890s that wasn’t a lot of money. Reformers argued that “the worst family home is better than the best institution.” They moved to empty out New York’s orphanages.

But as bad as many orphanages were, charity reformers encouraged even worse al­ternatives. The New York branch of the Na­tional Children’s Home Society, headed by the Reverend W. Jarvis Maybee, offered $100 a head for homeless children. He promised to find places for them: Many children wound up placed as prostitutes. Thousands of others were sent out West to become indentured servants. Farmers in­ particular sent in their orders for strong, healthy boys.

A whole pattern of cost-driven child dis­posal emerged, involving public authori­ties too. State investigators discovered that local officials in many counties “placed the child in any home obtainable, where it will cease to be a county charge.” They con­cluded that less cost to the taxpayer “seems to be the main consideration.”

UNLIKE INDIA with its Untouch­ables, or Japan and its Burakumins, the rationalistic West has no tradition of religiously sanctioned pari­ah groups. When competition for resources becomes intolerable, the “in group” (Sumner’s term) sanc­tions the creation of out groups by means of science. In the Great Depression, the Germans turned to racial science to justify stripping Jews of their civil rights and separating them from the rest of society. “Science” explained that the Jews were a parasitic growth on Germany. The 1935 Nuremburg Laws were offered as a step towards racial sanity. They also validated the eventual distribution of Jewish property among German businessmen.

It’s true that nothing today, or even in 19th-century America, compares with what the Nazis eventually did to the Jews. But in fact, the Nuremburg Laws didn’t establish death camps. They only caused the Jews to revert to their medieval status. Just as today the poor laws merely send our indigent back to their 19th-century semicriminal status.

The Germans made the Jews wear yellow badges. Until the mid 19th century in Bal­timore, the poor had to wear badges too. In colonial New York, paupers had the letter P sewed in red or blue on their clothes. Inspectors of the poor were directed, in the language of the time, “to See the Letter P: Sett on there garment as a Token of there Being Supported by ye Town.”

Similar economic conditions, filtering through similar institutions, provoke re­sponses that need to be examined for simi­larity. This isn’t the Great Depression, but never before in American history, not even in the ’30s, has the U.S. seen such a pro­tracted fall in wages. The twin pillars of U.S. business strategy — capital export and labor import — mean that workers can’t raise their wages. The only hope they have of pre­venting their incomes from falling further is to cut government spending and lower taxes. That’s why there is such a broad con­stituency for tax cuts and welfare cutbacks.

But the existence of an eager audience doesn’t tell us who’s producing the show. The Ford and Rockefeller Brothers foun­dations have been promoting radical welfare reform since the ’70s. That’s when the fiscal crisis ended the confident mood of the ’60s. In the wake of the real estate collapse of that decade, foundations began to pro­mote neighborhood “self-help” economic strategies in ghetto areas. Ford discovered the “underclass.” It funded experimental groups like Wildcat that put AFDC recipi­ents into unionized public-sector jobs. Workfare was born.

The urgency with which these measures were pressed seemed to fade with the sur­prising real estate revival of the ’80s. But fol­lowing the ’87 crash, the greatest real estate downturn in American history began to work its way through the budgets of cities and states. The fight for public revenues that began then is still going on. Local real es­tate elites need the cash now, not for any great projects, but just to stay afloat. They need Rudy. Just as the defense industry and the capital-gains seekers need Newt.

Of course, Speaker Gingrich is not a Nazi. He is a liberal. A 19th-century liberal, of the Manchester School. And Mayor Giuliani is no Gauleiter. He is simply another liberal admirer of the night-watchman state. And that is why Tiny Tim is back. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 14, 2020

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