American Exceptionalism and Social Welfare Development

Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
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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 children from the bad influences of their urban environment. Separate correctional institutions for delinquent children and juvenile court system were developed. Labor movement regained its power during war, as the labor shortage gave it a greater force to negotiate the workers needs (Axinn & Stern, 2008).The late 19th and early 20th centuries were marked by the belief that anyone who was willing to work could find a job. Still, the rapid industrialization and the influx of new immigrants after the Civil War increased the poor population and intensified the need for a more systematic approach to welfare.

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In addition, the labor movement was torn by internal opposition in approaches to fight for their rights, which prevented the working class from effective organization in their efforts to improve the social welfare (Axinn & Stern, 2008).Following the Civil War social policies were developed for soldiers, mothers and children, including the Civil War Pension Program, mother’s pensions and veterans’ benefits (Skocpol 1992). When the Great Depression stroke and the entire nation suffered economic hardship, grew the expectancy and need for the federal government’s involvement. Although the philosophy of New Deal was a short-term, temporary support through public works programs, Roosevelt’s legislation was strongly criticized by many. New Deal also strengthened the existing status quo of class and racial discrimination, claims Brueggemann (2002).Despite the criticism and opposition, many of Roosevelt’s policies, such as National Industrial Recovery Act, the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), and the most significant – Social Security Act, with Old-Age and unemployment insurance and Aid to Dependent Children – were enacted (Axinn & Stern, 2008). While not fully successful and far from perfect, New Deal initiatives served as a source of inspiration and base for expending of old social programs and creating new ones for the last 70+ years.


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American Exceptionalism and Social Welfare Development. (2019, Feb 15). Retrieved from

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