American Exceptionalism and Social Welfare Development

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American Exceptionalism and Social Welfare Development

The term American Exceptionalism, introduced by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1931, was based on the idea of America being built on individualistic, anti-government beliefs and attitudes, with special attention directed to personal freedoms and rights (Skocpol, 1992). The weakness of government caused by the decentralization of its power, slavery, increasing immigration, as well as cultural and racial discrimination played a crucial role in the hindering of the creation and development of social welfare policies (Nelson, 1990 & Skowroneck, 1982).

From its very beginnings, the American social welfare system was greatly influenced by the nation’s belief in individualism and limited government intervention, which resulted in reluctance to distribute resources from “haves” to the “have nots” (Axinn & Stern, 2008).

The Colonial welfare system was based on English Poor Laws, which distinguished between deserving poor (unable to work due to age or health) and undeserving poor (able-bodied but nonworking). The deserving poor received assistance from the government; the undeserving were employed in workhouses.

The 1800’s brought sweeping changes and a more humanitarian approach toward the poor, as people began to realize that the cause of poverty rested in malfunctions of society (Rothman, 1971; Axinn & Stern, 2008). The Charity Organization movement, which promoted social Darwinism and “scientific charity”, was established setting the ground work for social casework. The localization of power and “patronage politics” predispositions prevented any significant social reforms (Skocpol, 1992). Still, the government began at that time many social programs that benefited women, children and elderly who were not able support themselves. Specialized institutions for adults and children who required “special treatment” were established. The New York Children’s Aid Society’s “orphan trains” removed poor inner city...
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