Mutual aid, also known as fraternalism, refers to social organizations that gathered dues and paid benefits to members facing hardship. According to David Beito in From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State, there was a “great stigma” attached to accepting government aid or private charity during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Mutual aid, on the other hand, did not carry the same stigma. It was based on reciprocity: today’s mutual-aid recipient could be tomorrow’s donor, and vice versa.
Mutual aid was particularly popular among the poor and the working class. For instance, in New York City in 1909 40 percent of families earning less than $1,000 a year, little more than the “living wage,” had members who were in mutual-aid societies. Ethnicity, however, was an even greater predictor of mutual-aid membership than income. The “new immigrants,” such as the Germans, Bohemians, and Russians, many of whom were Jews, participated in mutual-aid societies at approximately twice the rate of native whites and six times the rate of the Irish. This may have been due to new immigrants’ need for an enhanced social safety net…