Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney do the nation another excellent service today by examining what the world would be like without Social Security. It isn’t too hard to imagine – you just have to dive back into the pre-1930s history books. And you will see the world of the poorhouse, the last refuge for the elderly and the infirm, the farms run by private charities which provided a dour and often cruel existence for those on the edges of society. Grim and Delaney begin with a fitting example of someone bound for the poorhouse back in 1896:

The woman “could not give street and number, but could ‘fotch’ the agent to her place,” according to a case study labeled “Aunt Winnie” in one of the organization’s annual reports from near the turn of the century. “Old age, with a heavy load on top and a strong wind blowing, made the walk a trying one. At last the 8×10 cabin was reached. In it was a stove in many pieces held together with wire, a bedstead with rags for mattress and rags for covering. From the leaky roof the floor was wet through and through.”

Aunt Winnie, the report said, had no income save the 50 cents she made every two weeks for taking in the wash. In summertime she raised herbs and greens, but in winter she “suffered for food and fuel.” Her children had all been sold away to slavery, and a nearby niece was too poor to offer any support. Her neighbors helped, providing money for the stove and cot, and a “colored friendly visitor was found to carry broth and other comforts to her.” The neighborly charity wasn’t enough to persuade the agent, who was essentially a private sector version of a social worker, that the old woman should be on her own.

This was a common occurrence in the days before Social Security, which basically wiped out extreme elderly poverty in America. But to a growing number of conservatives, this Gilded Age era represented the salad days, where people rose and fell on the basis of their talents without big government propping them up. They long for a return to a nation without a safety net, where private charities possibly pick up the slack, and where rugged individualism rules the day. To them, there’s no greater government than one which refuses to help people.

During the Great Recession, we’re sadly seeing a slow return to those Gilded Age, pre-New Deal policies, as what remains of the safety net staggers along. Social Security is under attack from deficit frauds like Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Unemployment insurance, food stamps and welfare have weathered blows for years, especially as their costs rose when demand for their services increased. A new Republican Congress will demand more cuts, squarely on these and other social programs, or will threaten to destroy the full faith and credit of the US government.

It’s important to look to history to see the inevitable consequence of these backslides. If Democrats follow Republicans down the deficit rabbit hole, especially if they break faith on the bedrock promise of Social Security, we’re sure to see a return of the poorhouse, and the cruel belief that the people contained therein are somehow inferior, somehow given to rejecting self-sufficiency, somehow lazy, somehow defective. That belief has already crept into discussions about the 99ers, or the long-term unemployed.

The most bitterly ironic part of the piece – a triumph of long-form journalism, in that it actually seeks to spell out the consequences of policy decisions – comes near the end, where we see how official Washington interacts with the poorhouses today:

Washington’s poorhouses live on only in the name of a dive bar just blocks from the Capitol — congressional staffers frequently imbibe at the “Pourhouse” on Pennsylvania Avenue — but the rhetoric targeting their one-time denizens has survived to the modern day unscathed.

Go read the whole thing.