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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Meat and Potatoes: The Social Welfare System Then and Now


Old Pitchfork Leaning Against Barn
Pitchfork, Barn (Creative Commons)

The social welfare system, as we know it, has evolved from the mid-nineteenth century, when responsibility for the poor transferred from local to county and eventually to the state. But has it?

The burden of caring for the poor was greatly alleviated when affluent churches and fraternal organizations stepped up.

Instead of dumping the poor, feeble-minded, elderly, morally compromised, and low-level criminals together in the almshouses and poor farms, orphanages, and nursing homes for the aged emerged.

This transformation seemed natural, but all it did was transfer the heavy, ever-growing load from one shoulder to the other. There is no purpose in listing all of the woes of this tragically flawed system. However, one thing remains certain throughout time: The system is corrupt. The irony of working on the “Poor Farm” is that the inmates were often malnourished, hungry, and overworked.

The effectiveness of the “Poor Farms” is that the people who were sentenced to poverty — unable to pay their debts and deemed burdensome — cultivated the land. After surrendering all their possessions, they did something productive for a (often leaky) roof over their heads and meals lacking nourishment.

There was something tangible at the end of a season, resulting from their back-breaking labor. Unfortunately, corruption and abuse of power caused this particular public farm system to collapse, eventually leading to the rampant use, misuse, and abuse of food stamps. 

The harvests from “Poor Farms” were not limited to crops alone; recently, the Carroll County Farm also managed, cut, and sold firewood. This pooling together of collective resources could potentially offer a way to recover from our current lack thereof. Once abundant with riches native to the region, the land primarily lies in waste. 

Currently, a large percentage of the population cannot afford to heat their homes during the long winter months and rely on “Fuel Assistance,” which does not usually meet the needs of genuine family requirements. Even when firewood is available, landlords cannot rent homes and apartments with wood stoves because it is a high-risk insurance liability. Many low-income families are tenants.

The hardship facing many underprivileged families is that the system is designed to keep them down. The deck is stacked, and it is almost impossible for them to claw their way out of poverty. The system that supports them has one hand tossing a penny and scarred potato at them while the other is picking at their empty pockets for possible table scraps. Any gain made is a penalty, and the system continues on like a scruffy hamster on an old, rusted wheel.

If a welfare recipient shows any signs of recovery — whether the slightest increase in income, temporary or not — the rug is ripped out from under her feet. This fear and uncertainty instill a sense of urgency and desperation. The person in danger of losing assistance clings tighter, seeking methods to maintain benefits and security. This also leads to dishonesty and fleecing the system. Many people know all of the tricks of staying in the system to the point of having more children, avoiding employment, working under the table, etc. There is minimal authentic incentive to extricate oneself from the system, primarily based on threats and apathy. It doesn’t work. Positive reinforcement and integrity in the system are necessary for people to desire to better themselves. Both are glaringly absent. 

However, good people are doing their best to help the less fortunate. This is generally a systemic matter.

The time has come to reinstitute and organize local community farms, oversee the production of our natural resources and industry, nurturing the earth and its inhabitants to live harmoniously. This may provide opportunities for those lacking essential skills or resources. Learning and contributing to their families and the community will be a valuable opportunity for growth and prosperity. It will be a rising up from the depths of nothingness.

This will work if there are systems to ensure that the “big bosses” do not skim off the top to the point where there is little or nothing in the bottom of the barrel, leaving all of the labor and none of the fruits for the laborers. 

How tragic it was that those who tilled the soil and worked under relentlessly harsh conditions returned from the fields to a bowl of sticky gruel, while those whose efforts consisted of carrying a heavy, pointed stick for prodding them like cattle — ate like kings.

We are beyond nudging at this point. We must push to work together with integrity to nurture, respond, and rejoice in shared abundance. If this unfolds, restoring honor and balance is once again attainable. The time to call for natural justice, logic, and peace is long overdue.


The predictable stench of beef bone soup and rusty beans drifted into the room. I ignored the hunger in my belly, gladly tradin’ it for the hunger to hear their stories. — Abigail Hodgdon, County Farm, 1873 Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series - Book One


Jun 14

Christian Missionaries are teaching planting crops and business practices to those who have been driven out of their homes into refugee camps, SUCCESSFULLY.


Jun 13


Mj Pettengill
Mj Pettengill
Jun 13
Replying to

History does and will repeat itself. Thanks for your feedback.

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