Can’t return to an American era where only private charity and churches took care of the poor – because it doesn’t exist

Here is a look at American social welfare policy throughout history and the argument is that there was no golden era of private charity:

One problem with the conservative vision of charity is that it assumes the government hasn’t been playing a role in the management of risk and social insurance from the beginning. It imagines that there is some golden period to return to, free from any and all government interference. As Senator Lee has said, “From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty—we were winning.” How did we do it? According to Lee, it was with our “voluntary civil society.” We started losing only when the government got involved.

This was never the case, and a significant amount of research has been done over the past several decades to overturn the myth of a stateless nineteenth century and to rediscover the lost role of the state in the pre-New Deal world…

As for social insurance specifically, the historian Michael Katz has documented that there has always been a mixed welfare state made up of private and public organizations throughout our country’s history. Outdoor relief, or cash assistance outside of institutions, was an early legal responsibility of American towns, counties, and parishes from colonial times through the early nineteenth century. During this period, these issues were usually dealt with through questions of “settlement.” A community had a responsibility to provide relief to its own needy, native members, defined as those who had a settlement there. This became increasingly difficult with an industrialized society, as people moved to and fro looking for work and were forced out of communities when they couldn’t find any.

The next major initiative was the construction of poorhouses by state governments, especially in the early nineteenth century. The central idea was that by forcing people in need of aid to live in poorhouses where living conditions were quite harsh, there would be fewer applicants. This ended up not being the case, as able-bodied people would still seek out these poorhouses, especially when work was slack and unemployment high. Worse, these institutions became the default support for orphans, the mentally ill, and the elderly without income or family to support them…

That need was partly what gave rise to the Progressive movement. Private charity simply didn’t have the breadth and depth necessary to truly respond to the Four Horsemen in this industrializing era, and Progressives saw a greater role for government to address these ills.

In other words, the government has been involved with addressing social problems from the early days of America. Granted, it may not have looked like the centralized welfare state that is common in the industrialized world today but there was still some government involvement.

This also reminds me of a recommendation made by sociologist William Julius Wilson at the end of The Truly Disadvantaged. After looking at concentrated poverty, Wilson concludes with policy recommendations which includes the key proviso that American social welfare policy should try to raise everyone’s boat because targeted programs for specific groups tend to be seen unfavorably by the larger public. Think of Social Security, a program that benefits a majority of Americans and enjoys widespread support.

Does Chicago gain anything by Jimmy Fallon taking a polar plunge in Lake Michigan?

New Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon was in Chicago this past weekend participating in a polar plunge. Does Chicago gain anything by this?

Fallon detailed his experience at Chicago’s Polar Plunge during Monday night’s show, a day after he dipped into icy Lake Michigan.

“I’m never doing that again,” Fallon said.

Fallon said Chicago “didn’t let me fool around” when it came to taking up Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s challenge to take the plunge, which benefits Special Olympics Chicago. The event drew a record number of people.

“I go in, and I hear you’re only supposed to go up to your knees,” he said, recalling running into the lake. “I just plunged back, I went under and a couple bubbles came out and I froze. I just stand up and I took my hat off and my hair turned to icicles, and I heard bagpipes. This is how I went. I thought this was it, I thought it was the end.”

Fallon also shared a gift he received from Emanuel, which declares March 2014 “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon Month” in Chicago.

The biggest winner here appears to be the Special Olympics since people donate to participate. Plus, Rahm Emanuel participated because kids read over 2 million books for a Chicago Public Library summer program – reading is good.

But, wasn’t this primarily a publicity stunt for Emanuel as well as Fallon? Emanuel wins by being an active mayor. As Fallon notes in his retelling and shows in a picture, Rahm looks pretty good coming out of the water. Events like this burnish his image as a mayor who gets things done (past Chicago mayors have made similar claims). He helps kids read and cares about others. It doesn’t hurt that a new CNN show “Chicagoland” features him as mayor. Fallon is a new host, replacing Jay Leno. While he takes time out of his schedule to come to Chicago, it is good publicity as he is involved with a charitable cause and is getting out of the New York/Los Angeles bubble that all late night TV shows live in. Maybe the clincher here is Emanuel giving Fallon a resolution saying March is “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon Month in Chicago.” Does this mean much of anything?

I’m not sure this all contributes much to Chicago. It suggests some people are willing to donate to Special Olympics – they had over 3,200 participants this year, no doubt boosted by Emanuel and Fallon’s presence. Chicago is a charitable city or a star-struck city? The polar plunge highlights the weather in Chicago, particularly in a season nearing record ice cover on Lake Michigan. On the whole, Chicagoans like to put on an exterior of tough people who can survive the weather, particularly when interacting with people from other places, but there is plenty of grumbling. But, is a polar plunge likely to bring in new tourists or help companies decide to move to Chicago?

(I realize this might be a grumpy take on a lighthearted event with some human interest appeal. However, this event got a lot of attention beforehand and afterwards and I wanted to think about how Chicago makes out in the whole situation.)

Burr Ridge seeking donations from public to meet city’s needs

In an era of declining revenue, a few communities are trying a new tactic: ask residents to donate money for needed city purchases.

The leaders of west suburban Burr Ridge have a list of dozens of items they want for the community, including a new patrol vehicle, a portable Breathalyzer and even a cordless saw.

But because they didn’t make it into the budget, they have put them on a wish list and are asking residents for help…

Stricker said village officials came up with the idea last year after learning that west suburban Riverside has a similar program. He said the village is still establishing a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) program, but added that residents have already given funds.

In 2011, Burr Ridge resident Alan Rose, the CEO of Rose Paving Co. in Bridgeview, donated $5,800 to the Police Department for new Taser devices, according to village documents. Resident Joyce Walsh also donated $5,000 to the Police Department in 2011 for its efforts in protecting the village.

As the article notes, Burr Ridge is pretty wealthy. The village of just over 10,500 residents, the median value of owner-occupied housing units is over $706,000, the homeownership rate is just over 95%, and the household median income is over $143,000, and 2.4% of the residents live in poverty. Perhaps in this sort of setting a donation program could work.

But, I can’t picture this as a viable long-term strategy for most communities. Could a local government wait for benevolent citizens? Could residents or businesses make donations and expect something in return like policies or decisions that benefit them? Public-private partnerships and cooperation in places like Chicago are one thing but relying on the public for donated money seems bound to lead to more trouble.

I wonder if this also could raise significant questions about what local communities really do need to purchase: if an item doesn’t make it into the budget, is it really necessary in the first place? Take the Burr Ridge items mentioned above: how worse off will the community be if the government doesn’t have a cordless saw or portable Breathalyzer?