Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mutual Aid: Historic Solution for Modern Problems

Audrey Pietrucha                   

One of most troubling aspects of the growth of government is how it has limited our creativity in response to challenges of all kinds. This is especially apparent when financial difficulties confront us today. Instead of brainstorming as a society for fresh approaches to age-old difficulties, we pass the problems along to elected officials whose solutions usually involves forcing one group of people to pay for the needs or wants of another group. Is it any surprise that Americans increasingly look at each other with resentment and suspicion?

Ironically, some of the solutions we seek may be found in the past. Before the welfare state was created, before either employers or government took or were given responsibility for insuring us against every conceivable difficulty, people themselves came together in Mutual Aid or Friendly Societies. These voluntary organizations, the remnants of which still exist, formed under the premise that there is strength in numbers. These community-based associations required a small investment of time and money but provided great returns. They also showed individuals can work together without government interference to prepare for the future and provide comfort and security to each other in times of need.

Mutual Aid Societies consisted of people who banded together for a common financial and sometimes social purpose. The idea was that regular and widespread contributions to a mutual fund would build a community nest egg which could be used on behalf of members in times of need.  In England, where these groups were called Friendly Societies, the purpose was mainly financial: insurance, pensions, and savings or cooperative banking. In America, where these groups were usually called mutual aid or benevolent societies or fraternal organizations, they often combined to fill both financial security and social needs. Group events included regular meetings, dances and sporting events. Sometimes there were even ceremonies involved – Think Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble and the Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo lodge with its silly hats, passwords and convoluted handshake.

Typically, members of these organizations paid a regular membership fee and in return received an allowance to cover their financial obligations when they were sick or disabled. Many societies contracted “lodge doctors,” often newly-trained physicians looking to establish their practices, whom members could consult free of charge. During illness fellow society members would also provide emotional support by visiting regularly - this also helped ensure benefits were not being abused. When members died their funerals were paid for by their lodge mates and often there was some money left over for widows or other dependents.

Some mutual aid societies formed around common religious, ethnic or trade affiliations. There were female societies and African-American societies. In fact, these societies were often the only place where single women and blacks could build their own financial security. An unanticipated benefit of the use of lodge doctors was the opportunity it provided females and non-whites to become doctors. Medical colleges were created to train women and blacks for service to their benevolent societies. Unfortunately, these colleges fell victim to established medical practitioners who saw lodge doctors in general as competition and a threat to the dignity of their profession. One way these established professionals used the government to eliminate competition was by pushing for accreditation for medical schools, which put many small medical colleges out of business.

Some familiar organizations with us today are examples of mutual aid societies, most notably the American Association of Retired Persons and the Knights of Columbus. Credit unions and other financial services companies such as USAA, which serves retired and active-duty military personnel and their families, are also present-day equivalents. Unfortunately, the modern welfare state and the labyrinth of rules and regulations it has constructed around what once were mutually agreed upon and beneficial private interactions makes a revival of mutual aid societies on a small scale difficult if not impossible.

It is regrettable that proven community-based solutions such as mutual aid societies are no longer considered practicable. There are many who would chalk this up to the complexity of modern society but I would remind them that people themselves have not changed, only the construct within which they operate. We have the power to rectify that, if only we would.

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