Carlisle History

A living history of Carlisle, PA

Carlisle History header image 3

NON-PROFITS IN CARLISLE: A Brief History of U.S. Welfare Systems

Introduction | History of Welfare Systems
History of Non-Profit Organizations   
 Poverty and Non-Profits Funding Challenges of Non-Profits    The “Bigger Picture”    Interview with Jeff Conway-Carlisle United Way    Interview with Dale Cross-Employment Skills Center


Welfare systems in America

Welfare systems have played a significant role throughout American history and have most certainly evolved, becoming more effective at meeting the needs of the poor and lower working classes. In the colonial era, “towns and parishes assumed responsibility for their own poor. Assistance was given in a casual and unsystematic way, and needy strangers were warned out of town. Some of the larger cities built workhouses that took in not only the poor but the sick as well.” By the early nineteenth century, “growing relief expenses and new strands in transatlantic ideas about the relief of poverty stimulated several states to try to systematize their poor laws. They hoped to reduce outdoor relief (the term for public welfare) by tightening eligibility laws and, especially, by requiring the destitute to enter poorhouses, which they expected would discourage them from applying for relief.” In the 1820s, state government participation in welfare programs increased because they made counties establish poorhouses. However, “the establishment of poorhouses did not eliminate the problem of outdoor relief, as their sponsors had predicted.”[1] Though the role of state governments in welfare programs increased well into the late 1800s, lack of supervision and coordination of the relief networks made it hard to assess the true effectiveness of the programs. “In order to improve the coordination of their relief activities, state legislatures established boards of state charities… These boards gathered statistics, visited institutions, and collected other forms of evidence, which they used to make recommendations to state legislatures…. These state boards were the precursors of the state departments of public welfare established in the early decades of the twentieth century.”[2]

The precedent for state involvement in relief programs was further broadened by increased awareness about social problems affecting communities. “Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries social and political commentators wrote incessantly about rising expenses for poor relief, increasing crime, the dangers of ignorance, and the plight of neglected or hungry children. Although, by and large, they did not diagnose problems or describe dependent people very accurately, the depth and persistence of their concern testify that dependence was a major problem in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America.”[3] When the stock market crashed in October 1929, the United States fell into a severe economic depression. “The core of the problem was the immense disparity between the country’s productive capacity and the ability of people to consume,” and as a result, banks failed, factories closed, and “by 1932 approximately one out of every four Americans was unemployed.”[4] In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President and faced the challenge of bringing the nation back on its feet. He enacted the New Deal, a series of social and economic reforms to appease the crisis. Roosevelt’s use of increased federal authority allowed for the creation of mass public-works projects – such as Social Security which is still in use today- consequently cementing the government’s role in the nation’s welfare programs.[5]


[1] Katz, Michael B, Poverty and Policy in American History, (New York: Academic Press, 1983) 5[2] Katz, Michael B, Poverty and Policy in American History, (New York: Academic Press, 1983) 7[3] Katz, Michael B, Poverty and Policy in American History, (New York: Academic Press, 1983) 9[4] “The Depression in the United States -an Overview,” Modern American Poetry.http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/depression/overview.htm[5] “About the Great Depression,” Modern American Poetry,http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/depression/about.htm