Poverty in America along, with allied issues such as income inequality, wage stagnation, and limited job and training opportunities, remains a core concern in modern society and seems immune to “trickle down” economic policies such as the recent tax reform legislation.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, settlers and immigrants sought their fortunes in an expanding economy that valued families, hard work, and self-sustenance. The Homestead Act of 1862 offered acreage for the willing farmer and family to participate in furthering the country’s westward expansion. However, the path to economic prosperity dramatically changed with the advent of mass production and factory life, as women and children were required to become income earners; family life was altered as the agrarian model eroded and populations became concentrated in urban areas. In 1790, the first census, the US population was 4 million, and by 1900, a watershed moment in industrial expansion, it had ballooned to 76 million—a 19-fold increase.
While American political society was losing voice to an expanding corporate culture, it was also pressed to respond to the demands of other interest groups—farmers and labor organizations—to protect their particular interests and positions in the economic sphere. It was, at the same time, forced to ignore the increasing number of individuals unable to share in the commonweal due to physical (including industrial injury) or mental disability. This avoidance was further justified due to the prevalent views of the time—free labor, social Darwinism, and a pervasive Calvinist morality. Such individuals were not, logically, fit to participate in the competition for survival of the fittest. Society could not overcome its value of work equaling participation in the commonweal. Private and public efforts to address this inconvenience were not very effective except, perhaps, in regard to workers’ compensation in the early 1900s. This latter was not insignificant, as at the turn of the century industrial accidents were causing 35,000 deaths per year and generating over 2,000,000 injuries.
For the most part in these years, charities were the major social response to providing some benefits to the poor and the mentally and physically disabled, mainly by way of “work assistance.” Later, state governments became involved enfranchising the “work assistance” model. But the poor and disabled had no interest group organization or representation to advocate on their behalf. Worse, the prevailing social view was that their plight was of their own making or a reflection of moral defect, solvable only by individual effort.
One form of “work assistance” to the disabled involved “boarding” individuals in groups or singly to farmers and others as a means for the recipient to engage cheap labor while the boarder learned successful work habits. In a few instances, states permitted auctions for this purpose. In the 1950s and 60s, “sheltered workshops” became a popular vehicle for providing some community-based support to such individuals, while maintaining the work ethic component.
But the prior, more deplorable practice of “boarding” had not completely disappeared. In 2009 in Iowa, a group home or labor camp for 32 mentally disabled men was spotlighted for hiring them out to a local turkey processing plant. The camp was managed by a Texas company for 34 years. Ultimately, the residents received a $240-million award for their virtual imprisonment.
In 1999, SCOTUS issued a decision that under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Individuals with Disabilities Act, sponsored sheltered workshops had to ensure community integration. Estimates are that today, 400,000 citizens are in sheltered workshops. Unfortunately, workers so situated are not subject to minimum wage standards under an exception to the Fair Labor Standards Act that permits operators of sheltered workshops to apply for payment of a “commensurate wage.” In effect, the work of the disabled is not equal to that of the able and the “charity” model of assistance continues to survive, along with that of free labor and social Darwinism.
Some advocates for the poor and disabled have begun to postulate that to overcome the prevailing stigma and political prejudice and government inertia, society must adopt the view that enfranchises all citizens with the right to shelter, food, education, and health care as consistent with the principles to “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare.” These received attention in the debate over the Affordable Care Act, wherein the previously mandated burden of providing healthcare in communities to those unable to pay was a cost that should be spread over the entire population. The effect of this argument aided in connecting the dots between the mandated charity care of hospitals and the obligation of the larger community. The future challenge is to include all citizens in the commonweal.