Before the welfare state, private means of helping the less fortunate were more prominent. A reasonable case can be made to show that the welfare state has eroded self-reliance and private giving. I recently read From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890 – 1967 by David Beito.
They were prevalent:
Even the data in Middletown, a study that often presents a bleak portrait, testifies to this fact. The authors found that 48 percent of working-class adult males in 1924 were lodge members. Fraternalism was still formidable.
Mutual aid societies helped foster self-reliance and strong values:
By joining a lodge, an initiate adopted, at least implicitly, a set of values. Societies dedicated themselves to the advancement of mutualism, self-reliance, business training, thrift, leadership skills, self-government, self-control, and good moral character. These values reflected a fraternal consensus that cut across such seemingly intractable divisions as race, gender, and income.
From this book, we can also see how mutual aid societies became marginalised because of government insurance regulation and perhaps also from other cultural and economic shifts. But the general point stands, it is not true to say that without government welfare, the poor would all suffer in the streets.
So when people make arguments of the form, “the rich should ‘give back’ more, look at how unfair and hard life is for the poor” – I think they are neglecting that the state is one big driver behind why this many people are poor to begin with. It crowds out private charity, it denies the poor abilities to enrich themselves (regulations, minimum wage etc), and it breeds the dependency mindset.
It’s my hope that as the world transitions to a more libertarian free market society, we build a private charity ethic to go with it.