Until the middle of the 20th century, a broad array of fraternal societies in America, involving a significant percentage of the nation’s people, operated a safety net for the poor, which “accomplished important goals that still elude politicians, specialists in public policy, socials reformer and philanthropists,” according to author David Beito.
Then that structure crumbled, replaced by an equally vast but impersonal and in many ways less effective panoply of government welfare programs.
Beito has written a book, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1809–1967, which explores why these societies (which at their height engaged perhaps 30 percent of American adults) became so popular and why they declined. It is a worthy subject, for, as Beito notes, these societies “created vast social and mutual aid networks among the poor that are now almost entirely absent in many inner cities.”
The fraternal societies—familiar ones like the Moose and the Elk and strangely unfamiliar ones such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Ladies of the Maccabees—offered their members more than secret passwords, rituals, and recreational activities. They were popular among the poor and working classes (black, white, and immigrants of all stripes) primarily because they promised vital protection from privation. Members paid small weekly or monthly dues, and in return could count on a small stipend to carry them through temporary illnesses. The societies’ pooled resources also helped members pay doctor bills, and many fraternities offered life insurance. The poor dreaded public “relief” and flocked into lodges whose benefits ensured them against the stigma of the poor house—and, for those participating in fraternities that carried funeral benefits—the humiliation of a pauper’s grave.
Help from one’s fraternal society was not looked upon as a handout. As one lodge leader declared, money was “not paid or received as charity; it is every Brother’s right, and paid to every one when sick, whether he be high or low, rich or poor.” There was no need to be ashamed of the brethren’s assistance during a temporary crisis. After all, reciprocal aid prevailed—a lodge member might be a donor one day and a recipient of help the next. This distinguished the fraternities from some of the large, bureaucratically organized charities of the day, which practiced, in Beito’s phrase, “hierarchical relief” wherein donors often came from a different economic class than recipients.
Throughout what Beito calls its “golden age,” fraternalism’s social safety net of mutual aid “dwarfed the efforts of formal social welfare agencies.” The implied lesson is that the poor are capable of creating effective, organized self-help efforts on a vast scale. Immigrant and African-American fraternities, despite the low educational levels of their members, administered millions of dollars of benefits, employing screening mechanisms to guard against fraud and common sense to protect against the encouragement of long-term dependency. By 1910, some 8.5 million Americans owned life insurance policies through fraternal societies—more than held insurance through commercial companies.
Fraternities further proved their administrative abilities by establishing several significant major social welfare institutions—private hospitals, orphanages, retirement homes, and medical clinics emphasizing preventative care. The Mooseheart orphanage in Illinois provided family-like care and vocational education for 1,000 children, and the Taborian Hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi offered quality medical care and respectful treatment of poor blacks often denied healthcare in the Jim Crow-era Delta.
Lodge membership carried important, though less tangible, benefits beyond social assistance. Societies reinforced in their members traditional moral values—thrift, self-reliance, industriousness, sobriety—that provided them further protection against destitution. These so-called “bourgeois” values predominated in all the fraternities, those created by every immigrant group and blacks and whites of every social station. Fraternities rigidly enforced upright behavior, disqualifying drunkards and the sexually promiscuous from membership.
One effect of this “culture of decency” was that lodge membership set upon one a seal of creditworthiness in the larger society. In addition, the fraternal societies facilitated social and business networking, connecting initiates to job opportunities and new joint ventures. Though individuals were not to join a fraternity for base mercenary reasons, lodge leaders affirmed that societies sought the advancement of the social and business interests of their members. Participation in fraternities also invested members with leadership and organizational skills transferable to the mainstream economy.
There are several reasons why lodge membership began to decline in the 1920s—and took a dramatic hit in the Great Depression. New entertainment sources like the radio and jazz bands competed for the attention of those who earlier might have looked to a lodge for recreation. Immigration, a key stimulus to lodge growth, began to wane. Widespread and chronic joblessness during the Depression meant people had little money for food, much less for lodge dues.
But government policies also contributed to the decline of fraternity. Legislation promoted by the commercial insurance companies restricted the arenas of new services (such as child insurance) that societies could offer to attract new members, while Social Security undercut the necessity for the fraternity’s life insurance programs. Added to this was the Progressive philosophy that questioned the efficacy of self-help and neighborhood-based assistance to address the problems of poverty in America. Proponents of this view asserted that “broader”—read: “government”—solutions were needed and that voluntarism was “inadequate.”
At the dawn of a new century, we’ve come full circle. We’ve learned that vast bureaucratic wars on poverty did not solve the problem, and that the fraternity values of personal responsibility, mutual assistance, voluntarism, and traditional morality—today culturally located in the faith community and many nonprofit service organizations—may provide the answer.
And while a fragmented culture is a sad fact in many ghettos, Northwestern University’s John MacKnight contends community economic development in distressed neighborhoods he has studied can be built on native assets—including webs of clubs and associations. Robert Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise has argued for years that poor people can organize for self-help when the government gets out of the way and nonprofits and philanthropies invest in indigenous leaders rather than imposing outsider solutions.
Dr. Amy L. Sherman is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and urban ministries advisor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.