The Great Society

This touches on a wider related matter, the distinction between the use of indoor relief in contrast to outdoor relief. The latter was otherwise known as the Speenhamland system, of the late 18th and rely 19th centuries: aid for the rural poor through local taxation (rates).

Indoor relief in the form of a workhousepsychiatric hospital or orphanage for children without parents was much more common in the past. Indoor relief took beggars off the streets and provided work, the idea being to foster the work ethic. Prisons also employed the same strategy, with Prison ships (anchored or beached hulks) and with work provided for inmates in land-based prisons in the form of the punishment treadmillDebtor’s Prisons were also used to punish those getting into debt. Undesirables were also exiled to a Penal colony overseas. Punishment and Social Structure by Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer published by Russell and Russell (1968, originally published in 1939 by Columbia University Press), describes many other ways of dealing with poverty using indoor relief.

Turning to the symbolic interactionist literature, a critical approach to what Goffman called the Total Institution gripped symbolic interactionists in the 1950s and 1960s. Mental hospitals were probably the best known example of this, in which the entire round of the life of inmates was controlled, but the concept was gradually widening to apply to orphanages, military organisations and prisons (especially debtors prisons).

In Britain these began to be phased out in the wake of the establishment of the post-war welfare state. This website – http://www.workhouses.org.uk gives a detailed picture of life in workhouses, poorhouses, orphanages and mental hospitals. It took until the late 1960s for these to be phased out. But remnants of the system still exist in some states in the USA and other countries, too.

After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 President Truman introduced the New Deal in the mid-1930s, though it was the Second World War and full employment that brought the deepest recession in modern history to an end.

In 1964-5 President Johnson introduced programs to eliminate poverty, creating the Great Society. The theme became a call to action at the Society for the Study of Social Problems 2014 conference.

But by the 1980s Reaganomics and the Vietnam War were choking off progress. The election in 1979 of Margaret Thatcher and in 1981 of Ronald Reagan signalled the start of the next neoliberal era, which resulted in a widening gap between the well-off and the poor. So there were many new cases of poverty and deprivation, especially among single parents and those thrown into unemployment or homelessness in times of economic recession.

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