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Why don’t Americans want a social safety net?

The South’s aversion both to taxes and to mandated government safety net structures had a long, and somewhat surprising, pedigree. In the late eighteenth century, popular radical writers such as Condorcet in France and Tom Paine in England had called for the creation of comprehensive social insurance systems based around universal pensions, child allowances, and education for all. Neither, however, managed to successfully alter prevailing political and moral doctrines. In France, after the frenzy of the revolutionary years the counterrevolution of the post-Napoleonic period put a halt to radical social experiments for decades. And in the United Kingdom, at least partially in response to the violence unleashed by revolutionaries in France, the early nineteenth century saw a tide of conservative reaction. Give money to the poor, the theory went, and you were encouraging indolence, dependency, and ultimately societal chaos. In 1834, after the publication of the Poor Law Report, “outdoor relief”—the giving of state moneys to the able-bodied poor in a non-workhouse context—was banned. For most of the rest of Queen Victoria’s near-seventy-year reign, “the great unwashed” were either left to find their own ways through terrain of hunger, homelessness, and disease, or were corralled into the sorts of ghastly workhouse settings made infamous by the writings of Charles Dickens.

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