By Mark Fernald
The faction now controlling the Republican Party and the New Hampshire House is driven by the so-called “tea party” ideology. It is an ideology the founders of New Hampshire would have rejected.
The settlers of New Hampshire were, for the most part, devout; they believed for philosophical and religious reasons that they ought to care for the needy. They understood this to be an obligation of individuals and of society as a whole.
Colonial New Hampshire adopted laws to assist paupers. To understand the attitudes of the day, consider what the New Hampshire Supreme Court said in 1836 when two towns argued over who was responsible for a poor family, and whether aid was properly given:
But when a man, with a house and a little real estate, is, by sickness, or other accident, reduced to want, he is not to be compelled to sell his house and clothing, and turn himself and family out of doors, sick and naked, in order to entitle him and his family to relief.
From the start, New Hampshire made the bold statement that we are a community, and that no one will be left destitute.
The application of this law was by no means perfect. A common practice was to put care for the poor out to bid. The farmer who was willing to board the poor for the lowest cost per day was awarded the contract. This may sound harsh, but life in New Hampshire in the 1700’s was barely above subsistence, particularly in the rural areas. Caring for the destitute often meant lifting them up only to the level of subsistence.
Over time, ‘selling the poor to the lowest bidder’ gave way to town farms, which gave way to county farms. Today, county farms have been replaced by state programs to serve our neediest citizens: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Aid to the Totally and Permanently Disabled, Aid to the Blind, and others.
“Welfare” is not something invented during the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt or the Great Society of President of Johnson; it is older than the 13 colonies. New Hampshire is a community which has always been committed to caring for the needy. Our state’s social programs are not creeping socialism, or any other “ism;” they are a part of a centuries-old New Hampshire tradition.
This tradition is under attack. The budget passed by the New Hampshire House would literally throw people “out of doors, sick and naked.” Over 7,000 people would be cut from the State program for poor, uninsured, mentally-ill people. Over $100 million would be cut from charity care at New Hampshire hospitals. Severely disabled people would be put on a waiting list.
If the House budget becomes law, people who are denied state assistance will turn to the welfare offices of our cities and towns for help. And it is here that the House budget is the most shocking—it would remove the requirement that local governments provide assistance to the poor. If the House budget becomes law, cities and towns would not be required to spend any more on assistance to the poor than they did this year. If the need for services goes up, a town can say “we’ve exhausted our welfare budget,” and turn people out onto the street.
For over three centuries, local government has been the assistance of last resort. If a person cannot receive State assistance—because he or she does not qualify for a state program for the disabled, blind, mentally ill, parents with minor children, etc.—local government is there to help before a person is left hungry and homeless. The House budget would change all that, turning New Hampshire into a very different place. For the first time in nearly 300 years, people in need would literally have nowhere to turn for help.
New Hampshire has the highest median family income of any state. Our state and local tax burden is fifth-lowest in the nation. State spending in New Hampshire is also fifth-lowest in the nation. The suggestion we cannot “afford” to care for our neediest residents is unsupportable.
The Republican majority in the New Hampshire House says we cannot raise one additional dollar to help our neediest citizens—indeed, they are proposing tax cuts that will slash more holes in the social safety net. Have we really become that hard-hearted?
Mark Fernald was the 2002 Democratic nominee for Governor and is Treasurer of the Granite State Fair Tax Coalition.