Reacting to calls for cuts in entitlement programs, House Democrat Henry Waxman fumed: “The Republicans want us to repeal the twentieth century.” Sound bites don’t get much better than that. After all, the world before the twentieth century–before the New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society–was a dark, dangerous, heartless place where hordes of Americans starved in the streets.
Except it wasn’t and they didn’t. The actual history of America shows something else entirely: picking your neighbors’ pockets is not a necessity of survival. Before America’s entitlement state, free individuals planned for and coped with tough times, taking responsibility for their own lives.
In the 19th century, even though capitalism had only existed for a short time, and had just started putting a dent in pre-capitalism’s legacy of poverty, the vast, vast majority of Americans were already able to support their own lives through their own productive work. Only a tiny fraction of a sliver of a minority depended on assistance and aid–and there was no shortage of aid available to help that minority.
But in a culture that revered individual responsibility and regarded being “on the dole” as shameful, formal charity was almost always a last resort. Typically people who hit tough times would first dip into their savings. They might take out loans and get their hands on whatever commercial credit was available. If that wasn’t enough, they might insist that other family members enter the workforce. And that was just the start.