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Past Offers Guidance on Welfare Reform Proposals : The poor: Protection without bureaucracy was available. But the quality of care could be scandalous.

Past Offers Guidance on Welfare Reform Proposals. One in an occasional series.


WASHINGTON — The keys to welfare reform, in the view of conservative policy analysts, are to give more authority to local governments, end the programs' entitlement status, expand the role of private charities, reconsider orphanages as a way to save children from the ravages of poverty and restrict benefits in order to encourage self-sufficiency.

"Our three principles--work, personal responsibility and state control--are the keys to unlocking the welfare prison that has kept our fellow citizens trapped," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing welfare reform.

Could such an approach work?

Clues to the answer may lie in the nation's not-so-distant past. Today's conservative prescription for welfare reform is in some ways strikingly similar to what actually existed in the United States for much of its history. Until the coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s and Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s, there was no federally administered national welfare system.

Instead, towns and counties doled out assistance to families that had come upon hard times and operated "poor farms," "county homes" and other such institutions for those with no place else to turn. Churches and fraternal organizations funded orphanages. And, especially in rural areas, individual families often took in poor relations or provided sustenance in exchange for labor.

For many people, the system had its advantages: It provided a measure of protection against outright suffering. It did not spawn cumbersome bureaucracies. And the rampant drug addiction, violence, fatherless families and other nightmares that plague today's welfare culture were relatively rare.

At the same time, the quality of many local institutions was considered scandalous, even by the standards of the time. Disease and exploitation were commonplace, families were sometimes torn apart. Local resources were periodically overwhelmed by waves of immigration and such calamities as drought and recession.

And then as now, costs were considered too high.

More important, the local systems were plagued by a stigma that undercut their public acceptance: the corrosive suspicion that, while some clearly deserved help, too many undeserving individuals were riding along free and making a spectacle of their idleness.

Indeed, long before the coming of the New Deal and the Great Society, the perceived failings and inadequacies of the old approach had given rise to calls for reform--some as far back as the mid-19th Century.

"There was no golden age," historian Michael Katz said.

Nonetheless, Katz and many other experts agree, elements of the past--what worked in the old system and what did not--offer valuable guidance for those seeking a better system for the future.

"All debates on poverty and welfare have raged around the same series of questions: How can we discriminate between the able-bodied and the non-able-bodied and the 'worthy' and 'non-worthy' poor?" Katz said. "What is the impact of welfare on people's motivation to work? What are our obligations to each other? You can see these questions being played out with people on all sides of the issue, debating them in similar ways over a very long period of time."

Basically, the strategy for dealing with poverty that evolved from Colonial times--much of it derived, in turn, from the "poor law" of Elizabethan England--had two parts: direct material aid for those who could, with modest assistance, keep body and soul together in the regular world, and institutional care for those who could not--the old, the homeless, the very young, the sick and the disabled.

The former was widely known as "outdoor relief" and is regarded as the forerunner of today's welfare programs because it involved giving out cash and commodities. Local communities gave direct aid in the form of money and goods to citizens in need. More often than not, those who needed help were friends and neighbors.

"It was not always cash. It could be coal for fuel, or they could pay your rent for you, or they could give you food or castoff clothing," said Linda Gordon, professor of American history at the University of Wisconsin and author of a recent book about single mothers and welfare. "These were close communities where the poor were your neighbors."

That sense of solidarity was an essential underpinning of the system. People received help because the community felt obligated to take care of its own, not because there was any broad individual "entitlement."

The community-based nature of the system was imbued in law as well as custom. "One of the features for many years with poor laws was 'settlement' laws--an obligation to support those who belonged to the community," said Katz, a University of Pennsylvania history professor and author of the book "Improving Poor People."

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