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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 337-338

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Book Review

From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State:
Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967

From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967. By David T. Beito (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2000) 320pp. $55.00 cloth $24.95 paper

Fraternal organizations, both familiar ones such as the Elks and Moose, and less familiar ones, like Ladies of the Maccabees or the Workmen's Circle, played a number of important roles in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American society. Skocpol and other social scientists have argued persuasively that these organizations provided important sites for a vibrant, cross-class civic life. 1 In this book, Beito examines the means by which these societies provided insurance benefits and other social-welfare services to their members. The Freemasons and similar societies had provided sickness and funeral benefits to members since pre- Revolutionary times, and developed a strong presence in United States cities during the latter part of the nineteenth century. During this pe- riod, both local and national benevolent societies and life-insurance orders provided both social functions and a "safety net" for many working people, including immigrants, laborers, and many African-Americans.

Beito first describes the values and goals of these organizations. He examines in detail the operation of two orphanages (run by the Loyal Order of Moose and the Security Benefit Association [SBA]), the provision of medical services by organizations to their members (referred to as "lodge practice"), and the history of two black fraternal-run hospitals in rural Mississippi. He also details the debates and controversies surrounding the moves of the federal and state governments toward increasing regulation of insurance and health care, as well as the effects that these changes had on the fraternal organizations' functions.

From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State is a fascinating window into these efforts by various organizations to provide "cradle to grave" help and support to their members. Beito argues convincingly about how important for women and blacks the opportunity to learn entrepreneurial, financial, and leadership skills was. He also offers evidence to counter the argument that fraternal organizations, like public and private charities, imposed middle-class values on the poor, by focusing on the extent to which those values (for example, self-reliance, thrift, self-control, mutual aid, and patriotism) were shared also by working-class organizations.

The book is less satisfying as a comprehensive picture of the role that fraternal associations played in the transition to the welfare state. Beito's methodology--in particular, his criteria for choosing organizations to study and the small number that he analyzes in depth--is not clearly outlined. It is difficult, for example, to evaluate his claims that societies were less exclusive and selective than is sometimes assumed without more demonstrations of the generalizability of his descriptions of the [End Page 337] policies and behaviors of societies and their members. Similarly, it is not always clear why he collected particular data. He surveyed former residents of the SBA orphanage but not former residents of the Mooseheart orphanage--both of which he describes in detail.

Despite these limitations, this book presents a clear picture of how the fraternal organizations experimented with different modes of social-service provision. It also presents the complicated arguments among fraternal associations, social workers, commercial insurance companies, and government regulators during the Progressive era that helped to shape the modern welfare state.


Kristi Andersen
Syracuse University


1. Theda Skocpol, "How Americans Became Civic," in idem and Morris Fiorina (eds.), Civic Engagement in American Democracy (Washington, D.C., 1999).



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