The original Poor Laws, enacted on this day in 1589, sought to “reinforce righteousness,” to strengthen “the family bond,” and to “set the poor to work” and turn the country into “a hive of industry.” Although far from ideal, the laws accomplished just that, and became the model for three centuries of unprecedented liberty and prosperity.
The Poor Laws determined that if welfare was to be a compromise, it was to be a carefully conditioned compromise. Workhouses and labor yards were established so that those willing to work could “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” while maintaining family integrity. Cottage apprenticeships were initiated so that the youth would “be accustomed and brought up in labor, work, thrift, and purposefulness.” Disincentives were deliberately incorporated so that unfaithfulness, irresponsibility, sloth, and graft could be kept to a minimum. From all but the disabled, industry was required.
This legacy of conditioning government welfare on faith, family, and work was carried across the sea by the early American settlers. Knowing that the Poor Laws were based on the fundamental Scriptural balance between discipline and responsibility, the colonists maintained the old consensus. As a result, the poor could expect justice and compassion even along the rough-hewn edges of the new frontier. But it was a justice and compassion that demanded responsibility, effort, and diligence of its beneficiaries. It was a justice and compassion rooted in the Biblical family and work-ethic. It was a justice and compassion that was administered, not by an army of benevolent bureaucrats, but by a gracious citizenry. It was a justice and compassion that offered opportunities, not entitlements.
American statesman Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Americans hold their greatest liberty in this, our poor arise from their plight of their own accord, in cooperation with, but not dependent upon, Christian generosities “ Likewise, philanthropist Thomas MacKay wrote, “American welfare consists in a recreation and development of the arts of independence and industry.” And Benjamin Franklin was fond of paraphrasing the old Talmudic proverb, asserting that American charity “is the noblest charity, preventing a man from accepting charity, and the best alms, enabling men to dispense with alms.” So America came to be known the world over as the home of the free and the brave, the land of opportunity.
The old consensus remained an unchallenged bastion in the determination of domestic social policy. But, that old consensus died in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson launched his famous “war on poverty.”