Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In the United States we received changes in the social safety net over the past century with the big changes coming in the form of social security and medicaid/medicate as well as other programs. The "Great Society" under the Johnson administration in the 1960's was the last big program change/introduction. Yet in early American society there was a lot of basis on self-sufficiency that often is touted as coming from the Protestant roots of many who came here. Somewhere along the way that self-sufficiency changed to where the government needed to step in and offer aid to many, including the poor, citizens of this country. In looking at our history we went in just over a hundred years from self-sufficiency and an expanding country to bread/soup lines in the Great Depresson.

What precipitated this change? Was it industrialization? Social forces that changed in the late 19thC due to immigration? Were the uneven economic cycles of the 19thC a cause? I'm looking for historical root causes that would have allowed for a change in social norms to where it was ok for people to accept help from the government, rather than expect it to stay out of their way.

share|improve this question
"Yet in early American society there was a lot of basis on self-sufficiency that often is touted as coming from the Protestant roots of many who came here." -- community welfare was an important part of Protestant ethics in many countries as well. Think about Sweden or Switzerland. –  quant_dev May 14 '12 at 12:45
@quant_dev Really? I hadn't really studied about that, most of the readings I have done on Protestantism in America was all about self-sufficiency. I'll have to look this up later on. Thanks! –  MichaelF May 14 '12 at 19:26
I'd say the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is the most recent big program change/introduction. –  jfrankcarr May 15 '12 at 1:52
@jfrankcarr While true, I am looking for the origins of the change in thought within America in the last century. –  MichaelF May 15 '12 at 13:10
add comment

4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This legendary self-sufficiency isn't quite as it seems. From Colonial days, almshouses (aka poor houses) and orphanages were around to look after those with no family although this tended to be uneven in application and quality of care. While many of these were affiliated with a church, some were operated by state and local governments.

People also received a lot of charitable help from friends and neighbors during rough times. Since people were generally less mobile until the 20th century, they tended to form stronger communities, often centered around a church. Even with urbanization, church groups remained an important part of charity from the various Catholic relief agencies to the Salvation Army.

The transition away from religious and other community based organizations toward direct government involvement in providing assistance really began in the late 1800's Progressive movement. Reformers, such as Jane Addams and Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, wanted to see more government involvement in the care of the poor, indigent and immigrants. They and their recommendations gained support of Progressive candidates such as Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Robert La Follette, Sr.

Some programs got enacted at the Federal level, like the Sheppard–Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act in 1921. However, most programs remained at the state/local until FDR and the Great Depression.

So, to get back around to your question, the change came primarily from early Progressives who, depending on your point of view, wanted to help the poor and immigrants or who wanted to exploit them to gain political power through buying their votes.

share|improve this answer
Ah...and I always thought of Addams House as sort of a outlier and not really representative of the social changes at large. I should probably reevaluate that, but I see what you mean about the Progressives, sort of like the Temperance movement I suppose, be around long enough and you make significant change. –  MichaelF May 15 '12 at 13:15
add comment

If you look back through history, the root cause of major social reforms in the United States was the Great Depression of 1929. Prior to that, most Americans were self-sufficient and fiercely proud. The Great Depression changed all of that practically over night.

There were a number of other factors that were already beginning to develop, most notably the failure of a number of businesses just prior to the stock market collapse in 1929. However, the actual collapse set into motion a domino effect that would be felt throughout the entire world. Several banks failed, resulting in millions of people losing their entire life's savings. Many factories closed, resulting in lost jobs, and a number of farms went into foreclosure, resulting in a decrease in the production of food. Local governments started facing collapses because they couldn't raise any tax revenue to keep their own programs going due to the fact that so many people no longer had any money.

To make matters worse, the government voted to hike tarrifs, resulting in other countries responding by raising their own tariffs. Suddenly nobody wanted to buy American goods, and Americans couldn't afford to buy foreign goods. This ended up resulting in a world-wide depression. In 1930, over 4 million people were out of jobs, and by 1931, that number had doubled. As if this wasn't bad enough, the Midwest experienced a devastating drought about the same time, resulting in even more farms failing and a number of people being forced to migrate to other states looking for work, placing an even greater burden on those local government.

When FDR was elected, he initiated a number of government programs focused on relief, recovery, and reform. Since Congress was controlled by the Democrats, he had no resistance in enacting his programs. New welfare programs were created, Social Security was introduced, and a number of job programs were initiated. All of these things combined helped to poise the United States for a major recovery, which happened to coincide nicely with the outbreak of World War II. The United States was just beginning to redevelop a strong workforce, and they had a number of countries suddenly wanting to buy their goods.

After or during World War II, many of these programs were dissolved, but many others ended up growing into the social welfare programs we have in such great abundance today. Sadly, the job creation programs began to disappear, but the "handout" programs remained. Over time, they have become so ingrained in our country, it would probably be next to impossible for any form of government to ever eliminate it. As a result, the need or desire to be as self-sufficient as their ancestors has bgan to dissipate with subsequent generations.

share|improve this answer
Very complete, thanks! –  MichaelF May 14 '12 at 19:27
This is largely true, although I would note that the Great Depression merely accelerated the trend towards more integration between the citizen and the government. As technology advances there is a natural trend towards specialization and thus individuals are less capable of the same level of "self-sufficiency" as say an American circa 1776 (while capable as a society of producing far more goods, knowledge, and services in higher quality). Given that modern capitalism tends not to acknowledge this, there is often a need for critical support of those who are considered surplus workers. –  BrotherJack May 14 '12 at 20:27
@BrotherJack This was my thinking, that something happened to get us from the "person who did all" in colonial days to the bread lines of the Great Depression. Some interesting food for thought here –  MichaelF May 15 '12 at 13:13
add comment

From at least the Middle Ages, there had been a combination of systems to support the poor, the old, the infirm, and so on. People lived in networks of extended family, and the more successful members of a family were expected to support the less successful; that was the first stage of the safety net. Once family resources were exhausted, or if you had no family, the next stage of support was the Parish - every Parish was expected to support the local poor (at this stage it is very hard to distinguish between Parish as religious organisation and Parish as state organisation, due to the intermingling of Church and State and the fact that those appointed to the role are often also church wardens or similar). There are also alms-houses set up by philanthropists for some few poor people, and in later times there were efforts to look after sectional groups by for instance the institution of military pensions in the late 1600s. None of these systems were perfect, and many people who were unable to work were left to starve - or turn to begging or thievery to sustain themselves.

Then along came the Industrial Revolution; and where most people used to live amongst their extended family, suddenly there were huge populations with very few family nearby. Anyone can be unlucky - but how much more so when people are working 12 or 15 hour shifts in factories filled with dangerous machinery. Deaths were common, injuries much more so, and the old systems were overwhelmed. Bear in mind that this is all in the UK, where the alterations were less profound than in the US, because in the UK at least the rural areas were remaining relatively unchanged, and the old systems were well-established. In North America, even the rural areas were often newly settled, and family could be thousands of miles away instead of merely dozens or hundreds. Additionally, people living in urban areas cannot fall back on growing all their own food in times of hardship; they are more likely to be renting accommodation than to own their own land, and so on. So in towns the problem of poverty is more concentrated, and it is more severe. If the family has a breadwinner who can find employment, they are likely to be okay. However if there aren't enough jobs (e.g. Great Depression), or you're in a group that finds it difficult to find employment (e.g. elderly, child, woman pre-1970-ish), you are going to be reliant on support from somewhere. Logically, like most other things in modern Western societies, the x-of last resort is the Government. When you can't put out the fire in your house on your own, you call the fire brigade. When you can't educate your children yourself you send them to school (/apprentice them off in earlier times). When the banks are on the brink of collapse, the government steps in to guarantee them. And when other social safety nets are inadequate, the government steps in. Certainly the experience in the UK was that it was often the groups and organisations, charitable, religious or otherwise engaged in trying to alleviate social problems on the ground who wanted the government to get involved, because the problem was too big for them to solve on their own. Look at the cases of Joseph Rowntree, Charles Booth and the Cadbury family for people who started in industry, tried to look after their workers, and then moved into wider philanthropy and arguing for government intervention. An American equivalent is Milton Hershey. This experience is common in many ways across the industrialised world; as society shifts, and old systems break down, new solutions must be found to age-old problems; everywhere the problem of how to support those members of society who cannot support themselves has included the involvement of the government to a greater or lesser extent.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Of course the main reason was the Russian Revolution which caused huge changes in social standards throughout all the Europe, and to a lesser extent, in America.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.