Friday, April 22, 2011


By Dan Sullivan
April 22, 2011
The current Republican proposal before Congress to eliminate Medicare has been denounced by Democrats as a heartless and cruel plan to rob the elderly of health care in their final years. And perhaps it is, at least in its current configuration. But with a minor amendment the plan imagined by the Christian Congressman from Wisconsin, Paul Ryan - what he calls “The Path to Prosperity” - could not only ease the deficit and the financial burden of the taxpayer but also provide Americans with decent health care, food and shelter in their old age as well.

The way to do this is quite simple. I propose we bring back the Poor House.

Government welfare systems such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid have been in place for so long that most Americans take for granted the government’s involvement in these safety net programs. They forget that prior to the establishment of these programs there were old people that needed assistance. It would have been a cruel society that left the elderly to fend for themselves. So Poor Houses were established to provide food, shelter and health care for paupers and those too old or without the wherewithal to care for themselves.

These Poor Houses, or Work Houses as they were sometimes called, provided shelter and food while preserving the dignity of the residents by providing them work in return for the largesse they received. In America, they were often located on farms, where the paupers could raise their own food. And they were quite popular with the poor folk who’d fallen on hard times, as noted by Jack London, writing from London in 1902.

“The workhouses have no space left in which to pack the starving crowds who are craving every day and night at their doors for food and shelter. All the charitable institutions have exhausted their means in trying to raise supplies of food for the famishing residents of the garrets and cellars of London lanes and alleys. The quarters of the Salvation Army in various parts of London are nightly besieged by hosts of the unemployed and the hungry for whom neither shelter nor the means of sustenance can be provided.”

The American Poor Houses never achieved the level of popularity of the English Poor Houses, but they were certainly more popular than some of the makeshift programs they replaced, one of which auctioned off the pauper seeking assistance to the lowest bidder, who obtained the services of the poor man or woman in return for food, shelter and medical care.

Of course no one, not even a Christian Congressman, would want to see us go back to the days of indentured servitude when we have the Poor House as a model of dignified, civilized care for the elderly.

To preserve his or her self-respect and dignity, the elderly accepted by the Poor House would be required to work, just as they were in the Poor Houses of old, but only to the extent their age and health allowed.

Besides providing assistance and dignity to the elderly, another advantage of the Poor House would be to ease the financial burden on the taxpayer. With Poor Houses providing shelter and food, serious cutbacks could be made to Social Security. Such savings could be returned to the taxpayer in the form of lower income and corporate taxes, or perhaps even used to help assure the long-term solvency of the program for those who really need it.

Make no mistake about it, any reestablishment of the Poor House system would still require some taxpayer and government assistance. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. The rich can’t forever be expected to support the poor. But such financial assistance would be dramatically less than what is spent today propping up the strained Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid systems.
“The Path to Prosperity” promised in the Republican budget is nothing more than a Dead End Street. Democrats have already stamped it Dead On Arrival in the Senate.

It’s time to head down the real “Path to Prosperity.” It’s time to bring back the Poor House.

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