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Welfare and Guilt

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As a labor historian and writer, I think a lot about why Americans lean so much more to the right than most of the rest of the European diaspora. Why did socialism have such an impact throughout Europe, Canada, etc., and has always struggled to gain a foothold in the United States? Why has the United States always been so hostile to labor unions compared to other nations? Why do we look down on the welfare state instead of embracing it as a small price to pay for a healthy society?

I think it comes down to the strong individualistic ethic in American society that extends deep into our mythology. Today, in my Gilded Age/Progressive Era class, I am having my students read Ray Stannard Baker’s 1903 article, “The Right to Work.” Baker chronicled the coal miners who scabbed during the 1902 Pennsylvania strike that convinced Theodore Roosevelt to intervene in a relatively neutral way to give miners better lives and get coal to eastern homes in the winter. Baker clearly sympathizes with the scabs because, like many Progressives, he believed in the right of the individual to rise and fall according to his ability. Progressives wanted to level the playing field a bit, but they were deeply uncomfortable with a labor union composed of militant Poles and Hungarians. The people Baker interviewed were either native-born Americans or long-time residents who had migrated from England or Scotland. They bought into the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality and, like many native-born Americans and “Old Immigrants,” found their world view really challenged by the new industrial capitalist system.

The same is true of the Northwestern loggers I study. The I.W.W. certainly had native-born Americans as members, but its ranks in the woods were dominated by the foreign-born and especially the Scandinavians. The native-born loggers and especially those who were born in the Northwest really tended to oppose the union. They believed in the system, even as they were getting screwed.

I was thinking of this today when I read the piece about going on food stamps. Food stamps is something most Americans feel ashamed of accepting. We demonize welfare recipients instead of accepting the fact that people are poor and the government should help them. We tie our self-worth to our ability to financially sustain ourselves independent of public assistance or charity. It’s as central to American mythology in 2012 as it was 1892. Even I am afflicted by this. I was shocked when I found out my Australian friends could go on the dole after their travels until they found a job. I would be mortified to go on food stamps. I shouldn’t be. And we should all recognize that a generous welfare program can coexist with an energetic, entrepreuneristic society.

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