All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 2001

From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State by David T. Beito

Fraternal Societies Once Created Extensive Benefits for Their Members

University of North Carolina Press • 2000 • 424 pages • $24.95

David T. Beito has written a book of significance to many subdisciplines of history, including urban history, social history, African-American history, and immigration history. Concentrating on the oft-ridiculed fraternal lodges, Beito argues that Americans have gone from a welfare system of mutual aid based on reciprocity to one of paternalistic dependency based on hierarchy. The thesis is stated precisely and argued systematically throughout the book and documented with a wealth of evidence.

Beito, professor of history at the University of Alabama, argues that the fraternals’ popularity grew out of their ability to provide important welfare services to their members in a personal and noncondescending manner. As he cogently puts it, “In contrast to the hierarchical methods of public and private charity, fraternal aid rested on an ethical principle of reciprocity.” Societies grew up to satisfy members’ needs for both sociability and security.

Whether speaking about disease, housing, poverty, or ethno-cultural relations, nineteenth- and twentieth-century analysts of the American city have painted it in gloomy colors indeed. If Beito’s book is any indication, more discerning observers are beginning to see some virtue in those belabored urban places. As the author points out, the fraternals tended to arise in cities precisely because cities provided the societies with the necessary mass of potential members.

The lodges satisfied a great range of people’s needs. Members of all races, nationalities, and creeds dreaded becoming public charges, feared sickness and injury, and were horrified at the prospect of a funeral at public expense. Fraternal societies created an amazing range of organizations to ease these concerns. Masons, Knights of Columbus, Foresters, Odd Fellows, Woodmen, Workmen, Sons of Italy, Scots’ Charitable Society, Rebekahs, Moose, Elks, Mosaic Templars of America, Eagles, Hibernians, and others march through the pages of this volume in pursuit of the goal of security for their members. Where the critics of the city (historic and contemporary) usually see dearth and desperation, Beito finds a cornucopia of organized and precocious self-help.

The fraternals shared the common values of mutuality, reciprocity, self-help, civility, business training, thrift, leadership, self-government, self-control, and “good moral character.” Although the neo-tribalists in academe commonly emphasize the importance of race, class, and gender, Beito gives these matters a different twist. While fraternal societies often grew up on such foundations as African-American origins, Jewish descent, or Irish culture, the organizations were similar and preached and practiced common values. These were not just blue-collar organizations; they comprised both blue- and white-collar people and included native-born Americans, immigrants, blacks, and women.

Above all, these fraternal believers in self-help created successful organizations. For decades, membership increased, benefits rose and expanded, organization improved, activities multiplied, and locals and nationals proliferated. Fraternals created orphanages, homes for the elderly, insurance programs, death and sickness benefits, and even health-care systems. For a time, before being driven out of the business, fraternals hired their own doctors to care for their members.

Beito’s evidence points unmistakably to the conclusion that the fraternal societies created extensive benefits for their members. However, after many years of useful work, the services of the fraternals became less important. The medical profession stopped fraternals from providing doctors; commercial insurance captured more and more policies; and the federal government co-opted the pension function. Aid to Dependent Children, provided under Social Security legislation, undermined the orphanages by making cash payments to foster homes. In one of its most insensitive actions, the government began providing medical care in competition with African-American organizations that had painstakingly constructed their own successful hospital and clinical-care systems in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.

The book is wise, civil, and thoughtful throughout, but especially in its conclusion. As the author suggests, “instead of mutual aid, the dominant social welfare arrangements of Americans have increasingly become characterized by impersonal bureaucracies controlled by outsiders.”

Roger Lotchin is professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.