RE: Life Before Entitlement – Historical Perspective
The article to which Justin referred discusses the mutual aid societies that cropped up during the late 19th and early 20th century to deal with poverty and other social issues. Historian Walter Trattner, author of From Poor Law to Welfare State, was quoted in the article:
Those in need. . . looked first to family, kin, and neighbors for aid, including the landlord, who sometimes deferred the rent; the local butcher or grocer, who frequently carried them for a while by allowing bills to go unpaid; and the local saloonkeeper, who often came to their aid by providing loans and outright gifts, including free meals and, on occasion, temporary jobs. Next, the needy sought assistance from various agencies in the community–those of their own devising, such as churches or religious groups, social and fraternal associations, mutual aid societies, local ethnic groups, and trade unions.
Anecdotally, I know this to be true in my own family. My grandparents owned a small general store in northern Vermont and many was the time when they carried people going through a rough spot. (After he died, my grandfather’s papers included more than a few uncollected IOUs, including property or farm deeds). The sense of community was very real and aid societies were comprised of such like-minded individuals who bonded together to help their neighbors and those in need.
A good paper on the topic was written by Dave Beito.
Mutual aid was one of the cornerstones of social welfare in the United States until the early 20th century. The fraternal society was a leading example. The statistical record of fraternalism was impressive. A conservative estimate is that one-third of adult American males belonged to lodges in 1910. A fraternal analogue existed for virtually every major service of the modern welfare state including orphanages, hospitals, job exchanges, homes for the elderly, and scholarship programs.
But societies also gave benefits that were much less quantifiable. By joining a lodge, an initiate adopted, at least implicitly, a set of survival values.
Societies dedicated themselves to the advancement of mutualism, self-reliance, business training, thrift, leadership skills, self-government, self-control, and good moral character. These values, which can fit under the rubric of social capital, reflected a kind of fraternal consensus that cut across such seemingly intractable divisions as race, sex, and income.
Men (or, more exactly, white men) were not the only to participate in such community support. The membership and goals were varied.
The record of five societies that thrived at or near the turn of the century illustrates the many variants of this system. Each had a distinct membership base. Two of the societies, the Independent Order of Saint Luke and the United Order of True Reformers, were all-black. Both had been founded by ex-slaves after the Civil War and specialized initially in sickness and burial insurance. The other societies had entirely white memberships. The Loyal Order of Moose was an exclusively male society that emphasized sickness and burial benefits. It became best known during the 20th century for its orphanage, Mooseheart, near Aurora, Illinois. The Security Benefit Association (originally the Knights and Ladies of Security) followed in a similar tradition but broke from the mainstream by allowing men and women to join on equal terms. During the 1910s and the 1920s, the Knights and Ladies of Security established a hospital, a home for the elderly, and an orphanage all in a single location near Topeka. The Ladies of the Maccabees was an all-white, all-female society. It provided such health benefits as surgical care. It is worth noting that the women who belonged to these societies, regarded themselves as members of fraternal rather than sororal societies. For them, fraternity, much like liberty and equality, was the common heritage of both men and women. To this end, an official of the Ladies of the Maccabees asserted that “Fraternity in these modern days has been wrested from its original significance and has come to mean a sisterhood, as well as a brotherhood, in the human family.”
These societies were successful in their mission, but they eventually declined. Beito gives a few reasons for why, “including increased competition from commercial insurance and the lure of competing forms of entertainment, such as radio and movies, it was fundamentally due to a transformation in the nature of fraternalism. By the 1940s, conviviality and life insurance, instead of mutual aid, became the order of the day.” Additionally, there was pressure from medical professions:
As early as the 1910s, the profession, increasingly fortified by tighter certification requirements which reduced the supply of doctors, had launched an all-out war against fraternal medical services by imposing manifold sanctions, including denial of licenses against doctors who accepted these contracts. One highly effective method of enforcement was to pressure hospitals to close their doors to fraternal members who used “lodge doctors.”
As Justin alludes, the rise of the welfare state played a role. Yet, according to Beito, it is hard to quantify.
The first three decades of the 20th century brought a rapid and unprecedented expansion in the government’s social welfare role. The two leading sources of growth were mothers’ pensions and workers’ compensation. In 1910, no state had either program; by 1931, both were nearly universal. During the 1920s, the number of individuals on the mothers’ pension rolls almost doubled.
Certainly, there were more than a few leaders of fraternal societies who predicted that this rising welfare state would eventually undermine mutual aid. As the magazine of the Fraternal Order of Eagles put in 1915, “the State is doing or planning to do for the wage-earner what our Order was a pioneer in doing eighteen years ago. All this is lessening the popular appeal of our beneficial features. With that appeal weakened or gone, we shall have lost a strong argument for joining the Order; for no fraternity can depend entirely on its recreational features to attract members.”
During the 1930s, officials of the homes for the elderly and orphans of the SBA cited Social Security and other welfare programs as justification not only for rejecting applicants but for closing down entirely. The Security Benefit Association, for instance, closed its orphanage because of “a lack of demand or need for that form of benevolence attributable to public funds now available for the support of dependent children.” It used the same justification to discontinue its home for the elderly several years later. While Mooseheart remained open and even increased capacity, applications fell off rapidly in the decades after the Depression because of a rise in social-welfare alternatives such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Mutual aid was a creature of necessity. Once this necessity ended, so too did the primary reason for the existence of fraternalism. Without a return to this necessity any revival of mutual aid will remain limited. Moreover, fraternal membership, although still heavily working class, no longer includes the very poor who most need social welfare services.