Welfare, although a commonality among American citizens, has become a leviathan of the state used to keep the populace dependent on the ever-growing taxation of the people, with “entitlements” making up more than sixty percent of the national budget. With no real end in sight and its integral perception in everyday life, the welfare state as we know it today is actually a very young invention of the state. Starting in the 1860s, many mutual aid societies formed within the US served as a place for men, women, and even children to congregate and participate in activities, learn skills, and most of all, get help in life.
The first societies formed in the US as a way for immigrants and other marginalized groups to share in their common bonds of religion, ethnicity, gender, occupation, and values. The first among them was the “Ancient Order Of United Workmen,” who were initially formed in 1868 by John J. Upchurch. As part of being a member of the order, you would be granted financial support through the pool of funds collected from membership dues. This later expanded to sickness, accident, death, and burial insurance policies, which were the first of their kind considering there weren’t insurance agencies as we have them today.
At the turn of the century, five distinct societies led the way for how mutual aid societies would be formed from the 1900s into the 1930s. The Independent Order of Saint Luke and the United Order of True Reformers were both all-black societies that were formed by ex-slaves after the Civil War and they initially specialized in sickness and burial insurance. The Loyal Order Of Moose was an all-male group that likewise specialized in sickness and burial insurance, and also opened an orphanage near Aurora, Illinois. Another society is known as the Knights and Ladies Of Security (eventually The Security Benefit Association), who built a home for the elderly, a hospital, and an orphanage all in one location in Topeka, Kansas. There were also the Ladies of the Maccabees, an all-female society.
During this time, these societies were made to pursue fraternity, a value that was seen as important as the values of liberty and equality. An official of one society asserted “Fraternity in these modern days has been wrested from its original significance and has come to mean a sisterhood, as well as a brotherhood, in the human family.” Most societies had very similar mission statements, although having distinct membership demographics. Another statement of one of these societies was “Its prime object is to promote the brotherhood of man, teach fidelity to home and loved ones, loyalty to country and respect of law, to establish a system for the care of the widows and orphans, the aged and disabled, and enable every worthy member to protect himself from the ills of life and make substantial provision through cooperation with our members, for those who are nearest and dearest.”
A large role that mutual aid played in society was the constant pursuit for educating their members’ skills in self-reliance, self-control, and on principles of individualism. What also made these societies revolutionary was the all-female and all-black societies made their mission to help their members overcome racism and sexism they faced in pre-civil rights and pre-women’s suffrage America.
Unfortunately, these societies could only thrive so much before the state stepped in during the Great Depression. While these societies helped people, the poverty of the Great Depression only made the people more receptive to the welfare that the US government could offer. By the 1930s, many societies had either dissolved or were absorbed into other societies only to become the foundations for modern-day insurance companies that still exist today.
As written at the Heritage Foundation on this exchange, “The shift from mutual aid and self-help to the welfare state was not just a simple bookkeeping transfer of service provisions from one set of institutions to another. As many of the leaders of fraternal societies had feared, much was lost in an exchange that transcended monetary calculations. The old relationships of voluntary reciprocity and autonomy have slowly given way to paternalistic dependency. Instead of mutual aid, the dominant social-welfare arrangements of Americans have increasingly become characterized by impersonal bureaucracies controlled by outsiders.”
The great idea of mutual societies, while unfortunately short lived due to the Great Depression, can very likely make a comeback with the proper shift in society’s perception of fraternity and welfare in the 21st century.
Read more from Amos at Think Liberty here.