The South Killed the Safety Net

September 9, 2013 | | Salon |


The South’s aversion both to taxes and to mandated government safety net structures had a long, and somewhat surprising, pedigree. In the late eighteenth century, popular radical writers such as Condorcet in France and Tom Paine in England had called for the creation of comprehensive social insurance systems based around universal pensions, child allowances, and education for all. Neither, however, managed to successfully alter prevailing political and moral doctrines. In France, after the frenzy of the revolutionary years the counterrevolution of the post-Napoleonic period put a halt to radical social experiments for decades. And in the United Kingdom, at least partially in response to the violence unleashed by revolutionaries in France, the early nineteenth century saw a tide of conservative reaction. Give money to the poor, the theory went, and you were encouraging indolence, dependency, and ultimately societal chaos. In 1834, after the publication of the Poor Law Report, “outdoor relief”—the giving of state moneys to the able-bodied poor in a non-workhouse context—was banned. For most of the rest of Queen Victoria’s near-seventy-year reign, “the great unwashed” were either left to find their own ways through terrain of hunger, homelessness, and disease, or were corralled into the sorts of ghastly workhouse settings made infamous by the writings of Charles Dickens.

In America, the South in particular took the Victorian lesson to heart, though to a lesser degree so too did the rest of the country. As did most of Europe. After all, Great Britain was the dominant power of the age, its economic prescriptions as hard to avoid as, say, the Washington consensus’s emphasis on opening up markets to international trade, privatizing public services, and deregulation a century and a half later. Coercive poor law politics, shaped around workhouses, poor houses, and other near-prison-like conditions for confining and attending to the subsistence needs of the poor was, as a consequence, the dominant response to poverty on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

A couple generations later, however, as the rise of industrial societies in Europe created huge economic dislocations and massive political unrest, Europe revisited the issue. Between 1883 and 1889, Otto von Bismarck’s Germany created a slew of social insurance programs. In England, at about the same time, social reformers such as Arnold Toynbee began calling for the creation of a government-funded safety net. And in 1908, Parliament passed the Old Age Pensions Act—part of a two-year spasm of social reform that culminated in the fabled People’s Budget of 1909. French reformers preached voluntary mutual assistance schemes and increasingly urged the government fund universal assistance programs out of a general tax base. After decades of agitation, the French Parliament enacted a state pension system in 1910.

In the United States, though, support for such reforms remained more tenuous. True, an array of progressive political groups supported workers’ compensation laws by the early twentieth century. And by 1917, with the Supreme Court having upheld the constitutionality of these laws, thirty-seven states had systems in place, most of them compulsory. In fact, as a region, only the Deep South had completely neglected to implement compensation schemes for at least some categories of injured workers. But in contrast to this, enthusiasm for social insurance systems didn’t take off prior to World War I. True, several states in America created their own very limited pension plans during these years, especially for widows and for teachers—who at the time were mainly women—and several also seeded their own unemployment insurance systems. Yet not until the New Deal did the idea of a federal system gain traction. Before then, even the American Federation of Labor and the left-wing Nation magazine opposed mandatory Social Security. Hence the paradoxical fact that when, in 1912, Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressives came out in support of social insurance, including a form of compulsory medical insurance, an alliance of conservatives, socialists, trade unionists, and federalists combined to defeat it. Opponents argued that the imposition of mandates on working Americans, forcing them to pay into a system to support the elderly and to provide medical coverage for the sick, was foreign to the country’s founding principles. What was happening in Europe was, they argued, too paternalistic, too coercive. Moreover, in a land of great social mobility and endless opportunity such systems were unnecessary. Keep them for the ossified Old World—keep them for places where one’s station in life was determined by one’s parentage.