The winter before last, a family at our church had their furnace suddenly die. It was January in Minnesota—so below zero nights (and days, actually) were a real possibility—and they had two young children plus a dog.
Once our congregation learned about their predicament, of course we decided to take up a special collection. A day or two later, their house was warm again.
My church isn’t large or wealthy. But we are willing and able to help each other in times of unexpected need. And while this practice may not be very common—I know I’ve never been to another church that so openly helped others in financial emergencies—it hearkens back to a longstanding tradition of mutual aid.
Before the implementation of large-scale social welfare programs like the New Deal, mutual aid societies were incredibly common. They functioned a lot like my church does, but they did it on a much bigger and more formalized scale.
These groups were as diverse as they were numerous. Some were religious in nature, others were for a single gender or ethnicity, still others were occupation-specific. Among the most common were fraternal orders like the Moose Lodge or the Knights of Columbus. American participation in these groups was so widespread that, according to the Heritage Foundation, a “conservative estimate is that one-third of adult American males belonged to lodges in 1910. A fraternal analogue existed for virtually every major service of the modern welfare state including orphanages, hospitals, job exchanges, homes for the elderly, and scholarship programs.”
Mutual aid societies were especially popular among the working poor who were at risk of losing everything should tragedy strike. The Mises Institute reports that 40 percent of families in New York City in 1909 that were earning less than $1,000 a year had someone in a mutual-aid society, and new immigrants were especially likely to join.
The groups were popular in significant part because they weren’t perceived as charity. Yes, fellow lodge members would chip in to help pay for your emergency, but you’d do the same for theirs. The model fit the true definition of a social safety net, available for when you fall hard but not perpetually on hand to help maintain financial balance.
For black Americans facing systemic Jim Crow-era racism, mutual aid was a lifeline. For example, the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, an African-American fraternal society that grew out of an anti-slavery organization, created the Taborian Hospital in Mississippi to serve the black community at a time when white-owned hospitals would often force black patients to jump through hoops or simply refuse service outright.
Intriguingly, though many Americans are unaware of this, there are some remnants of the mutual aid system that exist to this day. And though historically the expansion of government programs and regulations has again and again proven to be a death knell to mutual aid, now there’s evidence that this trend might be reversing.
As the New York Times reported this month, Christian mutual aid societies that work as a substitute for health insurance have seen their ranks swell dramatically since the passage of Obamacare. “[M]embership in sharing ministries has more than doubled over the last six years, to 535,000 from about 200,000,” the Times found.
Christians are joining these societies not only because it saves them money on health expenses but because—much like the mutual aid groups of old—it’s a matter of principle. “Instead of wanting to be part of an insurance company, I wanted to be part of something where the body of Christ was banding together and doing what the Bible commanded in a more personal and real way,” explained James Lansberry of one such organization, Samaritan Ministries.
Unfortunately, as Jim Epstein writes at Reason, Obamacare “includes language that exempts members of health-care sharing ministries from the individual mandate, but it’s written to insure that that exemption only applies if the organizations they belong to existed prior to the law’s passage.”
The good news is there are a lot of other functioning mutual aid organizations of all types still operating in America today, and they aren’t subject to that same absurd rule. From Lutheran investment funds to anarchist coops, these groups run the gamut of membership and motivation, much like their forebears.
Though they don’t have the name recognition of times past, these societies could be a growing part of America’s future, offering a real alternative to the wasteful, messy, one-size-fits-all services we too often get from crony capitalism and the welfare state.