One hundred and one years ago, the Illinois legislature passed a law authorizing “Mothers’ Pensions,” and the entitlement sleigh ride was off and running. Its journey made a significant stop in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, before bobbing off through a world of legislatures, executives and, as we’ve just seen, judges.
Mothers’ Pensions allowed a degree of security to fatherless families, which were becoming more common as the American population shifted to the cities and factory work became ever more dangerous. If a man died or succumbed to urban temptations and disappeared, the result often left the kids in an orphanage and the mother in the poorhouse.
The pensions were a hybrid of progressive and conservative ideals. Progressives didn’t want anyone to starve, while conservatives saw the value of a mom able to stay at home and be with her children.
A (GOP controlled) White House conference on children in 1909 concluded that “Home life is the highest and finest product of civilization; it is the great molding force of mind and character.”
Misfortune of a parent should not deprive a child of this experience, the conference concluded. A great majority of the states agreed, and through the next two decades most had their own provisions for Mothers’ Pensions.
But the program was not a ringing success, for reasons that will sound familiar today. It was not universally popular with those who felt it was a senseless giveaway program, and many local jurisdictions simply refused to put the state law into action (Medicaid anyone?) or claimed their counties had “zero” fatherless families.
Then came the Great Depression, which made the Mothers’ Pensions seem even more unaffordable, just as our Great Recession has provided an affordability opening for health-care act opponents. Besides, in the Depression, it was men who needed help, so obviously the nation had to make them a priority over women and children.
But Mothers’ Pensions had planted a seed, and in Western Maryland someone was watching.
Davey Lewis knew this about hard labor: It wasn’t for him. At least not as a vocation, and as such he abandoned the coal mines of Centre County, Pa., in 1892 for a law office in Cumberland. In and out of political office through the first part of the new century, Lewis finally spent the better part of the 1930s representing Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, the one of such recent gerrymandering fame.
It was Lewis who was behind arguably the most popular federal program in U.S. history. He introduced the Social Security bill into the House of Representatives on Jan. 17, 1935, and was the guy who understood the details, including the reconstituted Mother’s Pensions, known for the next 60 years as Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
AFDC helped millions of needy people through the years, but it also gave birth to the perception of the Welfare Queen, the bonbon gulping soap opera addict having ever more children for no other reason than a boost in her monthly check. AFDC was finally abridged and renamed under the Clinton welfare reforms.
But, perhaps because men are beneficiaries as well, Social Security has remained immune from full political attack, and today remains a shining example of what a wealthy, enlightened nation can do to protect its own from destitution.
Social Security was a desperate measure born of the desperate times that often seem to follow good times.
Alan Greenspan spoke of “irrational exuberance” prior to the most recent economic collapse, and FDR’s labor secretary Frances Perkins spoke of the “heedless optimism” of the rockin’ 1920s.
The difference seems to be that the Depression caused the nation, in Perkins’ words, to “grow up,” and meet its challenges head on. By contrast, our own post-recession lawmakers seem ever more intractable and childlike.
So what does it mean? As a state official suggested to me last week it means this: Should 6th District Democratic challenger John Delaney defeat incumbent Roscoe Bartlett for the House of Representatives; and should the vote to overturn the newly drawn 6th District boundary succeed; and should the Democrats win a majority in the House of Representatives by one seat — well, let’s just say that Maryland’s 6th District will be in the national spotlight in ways not seen since a cold winter afternoon in 1935.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.