Welfare from the Colonial Period to the Progressive Era
Treatment of the poor in colonial America was based on the principles set forth in the Elizabethan poor law of 1601. According to this English law, each town or parish was responsible for the care of its own needy. The law distinguished between three categories of the poor: those who were unable to work due to sickness or age, who were to be given material aid; the able-bodied who were unable to find jobs, who were to be provided with work; and the able-bodied but unwilling to work, who were to be instilled with the work ethic. The two important legacies of this law were its stipulation that poor relief is a local responsibility and the burden that it placed on the needy to prove their worthiness for relief.
Operating on the principles of the Elizabethan poor law, American colonial governments took responsibility for providing for the needy in their localities, through socalled "outdoor relief"—material assistance granted on a case-by-case basis. Localities also auctioned off destitute persons to the lowest bidder, who would receive funds in exchange for caring for them. However, because they were seen as drains on government funds, strangers in need were often warned away from towns, even if they were sick or disabled.
Beginning in the late eighteenth century, however, increasing urbanization, immigration, population growth, and unemployment led to a rising poor population and the need for a more systematic approach to welfare. Although outdoor relief continued to be practiced, states and municipalities supported "indoor relief" by building institutions to provide for the permanently poor and to instill the able-bodied with habits of work discipline.
In general, poorhouses were inadequately funded. Moreover, they were often poorly administered, and those who ran them were often corrupt. They lumped together different classes of poor in the same institution: the old, the sick, and the mentally ill were housed with the able-bodied unemployed. Under such circumstances, poor houses were unable to provide adequate care for the needy or instill work habits in the able-bodied. In part, poorhouses were meant to be unpleasant institutions, as the threat of having to live in the poorhouse was intended to deter the poor from idleness. By the beginning of the twentieth century, most poorhouses were transformed into homes for the old-aged who had no one else to care for them.
By the end of the nineteenth century, many European nations were beginning to build a welfare state. A number of American reformers, believing that government welfare would have to be altered to reflect the new hazards of an industrial economy, sought to emulate the European example. While these reformers failed in their efforts to develop European-style provisions for old-age pensions and unemployment insurance, the Progressive Era (1900–1921) did see the early growth of the American welfare system. For example, from 1911 to 1921, forty-two states introduced workmen's compensation legislation, which provided accident insurance to protect workers against job-related injuries.
In the Progressive Era, a powerful network of progressive middle-class women lobbied for mothers' pensions, and thirty-nine states developed mothers' aid programs from 1911 to 1921. Under these programs, states gave money to single mothers to help them defray the costs of raising their children in their own homes. The aid was meant to deter the use of child labor to help raise money for the family and to prevent the institutionalization of poor and fatherless children in orphanages, a common practice in the nineteenth century. However, in order to receive this aid, women had to prove that they were fit mothers with suitable homes. Often, the benefits given were inadequate, and the programs only reached a small portion of those in need—in 1931, only 93,620 of 1.5 million female-headed families received mothers' aid.
Progressives had the most success in instituting programs whose goal was protecting children. In 1912, the federal government established the U.S. Children's Bureau to gather information on the treatment of the nation's children. In 1921, Congress passed the Sheppard-Towner Act, giving matching funds to states to build maternal and child health facilities to fight infant mortality. Despite their accomplishments, Progressives failed to develop an extensive American welfare system—that task was not accomplished until the New Deal.