What comes to mind when you think of poverty policies prior to FDR’s New Deal? For many people, the idea of pre-1940s welfare is likely to resemble something out of a Charles Dickens’ novel: destitute adults in the poorhouse and hungry children (usually orphans) eating a bowl of gruel.
That impression is likely what we have about welfare in America during the era of the Founding Fathers. But is it accurate?
“The left often claims the Founders were indifferent to the poor—suggesting that New Deal America ended callousness and indifference,” says Thomas West. “Indeed, high school and college textbooks frequently espouse this narrative. Many on the right think the Founders advocated only for charitable donations as the means of poverty relief.”
Neither impression is correct, adds West. America always has had laws providing for the poor: The real difference between the Founders’ welfare policies and today’s is over how, not whether, government should help those in need.