The Evils of the Dole: What Is This “Dole” Thing, Anyway?

Last week, Kristine A wrote an excellent post from last week, highlighting the BYU-I Medicaid omnishambles. In the post, she mentioned that one rumored reason for the policy was to get students “off the dole.”

Now, I’ve been meaning to write about church (and government) welfare for a while, and that comment got me thinking: variously in lesson manuals and other church contexts growing up, I’ve heard about the evils of the dole. But outside of church contexts, I can’t say I’ve heard the word “dole” very often.[fn1]

Originally, I had a long, comprehensive post vaguely mapped out in my head. But it turns out this is the holiday season, and also the writing-and-grading-finals season, so in place of the comprehensive exegesis of church welfare, I’m going to look at use of the word dole.

According to the OED, dole means “[d]ealing out or distribution of gifts; esp. of food or money given in charity.” It was written as early as 1275, so it’s not a terribly recent addition to our language.[fn2]

We don’t use it a lot today, though. In fact, according to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, use of “the dole” peaked in the mid-30s, roughly corresponding to both the Great Depression and the beginnings of the New Deal.[fn3] While its usage hasn’t dropped back to pre-1930s levels, it has dropped significantly, to the extent that I can totally understand why, outside of the church, I virtually never hear the phrase.

I’ll note that Mormon usage of “dole” doesn’t seem to track general usage; if you run a search on LDS General Conference Corpus for “dole,” you’ll find that, while it was used in the 1930s, its usage spiked in the 1970s and 80s.[fn4]

So what’s up with that? The 1970s and 1980s potentially makes sense for a renewal of talking about welfare: the U.S. faced four recession during those two decades and, in the mid-70s, Ronald Reagan introduced welfare queens into the political discourse (in spite of the fact that it was, in today’s unfortunate political language, fake news).

So we were primed to talk about welfare. But why did Mormon speakers use “the dole”? as the phrase of choice, veering off from the broader trends? I don’t know, but I can speculate: eleven people were responsible for the 31 usages of “dole” in the 1970s: Henry D. Taylor, Victor L. Brown, Ezra Taft Benson, Vaughn J. Featherstone, Marion G. Romney, Howard W. Hunter, Thomas S. Monson, Spencer W. Kimball, J. Richard Clarke, David B. Haight, and Boyd K. Packer. Of those 11 speakers, 4–Packer, Clarke, Monson, and Featherstone–would have been younger than 12 at the mid-30s peak of using the word. In 1935, the other 7 ranged in age from 21 (Brown) to 40 (Kimball).

It makes me wonder: were they using the language of their young(er) adulthood to address contemporary issues? Honestly, I suspect they were; there’s no reason to think that LDS General Authorities were keeping current on government social safety net policies. Rather, to the extent they were thinking about providing welfare, they would have been thinking about it from the perspective of church welfare. So when the social safety net became relevant again, it makes sense that they would frame it according to their earlier, and most salient, memory of it.

Note: while I’m going to get into substantive details about welfare later, I’ll note that questions of framing welfare are always important, and today is no different: the Trump administration is proposing changes to SNAP eligibility that could remove hundreds of thousands of people from the program, with language that reflects skepticism over “the dole” (though without using those two words).

[fn1] With the exception, I suppose, of Bob and Elizabeth in the 1990s. Oh, and the bananas.

[fn2] I apologize for the size of the images in this post; if you click on them, you can seem them full-size.

[fn3] A future post will spend a fair amount of time on the New Deal and its relationship to Mormon welfare.

[fn4] I can’t figure out how to link directly to search results at the Corpus, so if you want to double-check me, you’ll have to run your own search for “dole.”


  1. “dole” has always had the connotation of unearned or undeserved, to me. Did I make that up, or is there some history or application that supports the unearned or undeserved read?

    Of course there are threads of political and religious speech and doctrine related to earning our rewards. Or at least how others should earn their rewards. I hope you will address those in your further work on welfare.

  2. I wondered when I first heard about the BYU-I issue if it was somehow a political issue at its core. We probably won’t ever find out the reason for sure, but this anti-dole idea seems as good a hypothesis as any.

  3. I think our use of “the dole” comes from the 1936 talk introducing the Church Security (i.e., welfare) Program by Heber J. Grant that was quoted ad nauseum for so many years by the most politically conservative among us:

    Our primary purpose in organizing the Church Security Plan was to set up a system under which the curse of idleness will be done away with, the evils of the dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift, and self-respect be once more established among our people. The aim of the church is to help the people help themselves. Work is to be re-enthroned as the ruling principle in the lives of our church members.

    Although I’ll probably never get around to, you know, actually writing it up, I’ve observed in my study of historic Mormon correspondence that Church leaders in the earliest years of Church Welfare, when they were answering so many questions from stakes in both the US and Canada, opposed “the dole” not so much for what conservatives believe today — that it disincentivizes work — but because they were afraid to have needy Church members come to rely on government assistance when there was no assurance in the Depression years that such assistance could long continue, and they were afraid of the consequences of the abrupt ending of that aid.

  4. State welfare was generally referred to here in the UK as ‘dole’ and did have connotations of laziness, but I never understood why it was viewed any differently than any private insurance taken out against unemployment, as it was paid for by taxation. If it were done privately we might call it good financial planning. I imagine that a pejorative view goes happily uncorrected by the state since that disincentivises uptake, and indeed there are regular re-framings in order to shame the sick, disabled and unemployed as being unwilling to work.

  5. I *love* this type of post, Sam. Like wayfarer, I had always thought usage of the term “the dole” was more common in British English than in American. I used the Google Books corpora (accessed through the website to search for this term for British English and for American English. The American English results match yours (the Google n-grams for American English is the same corpus as the one you looked at, I think), but the British English results are quite different. For American English, the peak decade is 0.58 uses per million words in the 1930s. British English has a peak that’s almost twice as high in the 1930s and 1940s (1.10, 1.11) and then an even higher peak in the 1980s (1.66). I don’t know about the reason, but I’m glad to see that the difference wasn’t just in my head.

  6. John Mansfield says:

    Two of those eleven were presiding bishops and one was a counselor. When I think of presiding bishops of their era, I think of the church welfare program. When I think of presiding bishops of the last twenty years, I think of property management.

    Also, what was Marion Romney’s role with church welfare? It seems like he was always giving talks on welfare back when General Conference included a Welfare Session. I also associate Howard Hunter with that, though not as strongly. At any rate, those talking about the dole in conference in the 1970s were involved in church welfare.

  7. John Mansfield says:

    Also, Ardis’ Heber J. Grant quote jumped immediately to mind, which I expect most of those 31 conference citations were quoting. I was surprised to reach the end of the post with no mention of it. It seems the decades do in fact pass along.

  8. Here are the results. I’m not sure if the images will be pulled in correctly, but hopefully you can click on the links if not.

  9. The 1970s also had the “welfare sessions” as part of general conference, and I imagine a lot of those would have been a natural setting in which to regurgitate some of the older 1930s quotes about “the dole”.

  10. Thanks, Ardis. That’s great information, and I’ll look forward to your (eventual) writing on it!

    Ziff, that’s interesting about the British ngram. A quick search says that Margaret Thatcher was (rhetorically, at least) opposed to welfare and dedicated to reducing it. I’ll defer to any British readers we have, but it seems that that renewed focus on welfare may have contributed to its increased usage in 1980s Britain.

    John, I have no doubt that many of those speaking had a deep familiarity with and concern about church welfare. My interest, for this purpose, is just why they chose the words they did, especially since “dole” want a super-common term at the time in the US.

  11. And John, I’m pretty sure that some, though not all or even most, were quoting Grant.

  12. Wondering says:

    “Dole” is very common in American grocery store usage; see it on bananas and pineapple, etc.!
    But seriously, since for some years here we’ve had local church leaders encouraging usage of governmental welfare programs instead of or in addition to fast offering funds and the bishops’ storehouse, I’ve heard very little about the evils of “the dole” at Church. I wonder if the change is a matter of viewing the governmental programs now as more stable than in the 30s or a matter of families and fast offerings not being able to keep up.

  13. nobody, really says:

    I had to view some auditor/clerk/Bishopric training just last night. It featured a couple of members of Q12 as well as the Presiding Bishop. It was stated clearly, more than once, and by more than one person, that church members should avail themselves of community and government resources before church assistance would be given.

    They went as far as to cite a story about a young mother losing her husband, and how (then) Bishop Ballard started calling family members of the widow. He claims to have reached a brother who hadn’t spoken to his sister in years – he was now a successful businessman who showed up a few days later to pay off the mortgage and start sending a monthly check. Of course, the businessman then returned to full activity in the church as well. Bishops are now instructed to start calling the extended family members of people seeking assistance.

    As with all training in the church now, the first half of the training covered how inspired the training is. The second half included about three minutes of training, and another ten minutes of discussion of how much this inspired training will help stake presidents and bishops stay out of trouble.

    As far as fast offerings not being able to keep up – we’re not even close to taking care of our own. Just this week we’ve had complete strangers who have never been church members asking us to pay burial expenses for their family members. This isn’t unique to our church, either. A co-worker on the board of another church tells me they are now receiving regular requests over Facebook for burial expenses, car payments, vacation trips to Disney….

  14. The GAs must have taken The Exploited to heart:

    Life on the dole in the 1980s
    Life on the dole is no fun
    Life on the dole, aven’t got any money
    Life on the dole is no fun
    Life on the dole
    It’s no fun

  15. @Autumn: I hope we do get to hear the whole story behind the BYU-I thing at some point. I think it’s probably different from the narratives I’ve seen tossed around the most.

    @Christian: If you made that up then somehow I absorbed it, because that’s the sense I’ve always had too. Oh and,
    “Or at least how others should earn their rewards”
    Yeah. That’s exactly it.

  16. I remember hearing that Grant quote a few times, probably in the 80s or 90s. I’m either naive or idealistic, though (or maybe just dim), because I never connected “dole” with government welfare. I mean, I knew it meant living off of handouts from other people, and implied a lack of willingess to work, but didn’t think it referred to people on welfare. I assumed that since they needed the help, they weren’t the kind of freeloaders Grant was referring to as “evil.” But maybe that’s because my family was poor enough to qualify for government assistance, and we were well liked in the ward. Funny how our experiences can blind us to things that seem so obvious in retrospect.

    @Nobody, that is, unfortunately, all too apt a description of many trainings these days.

  17. Ann Porter says:

    I am racking my brain trying to remember the name of the big Mormon blog that had a post on this topic 10-15 years ago that had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of comments. It’s delisted from the Mo-arch. It was epic.

  18. Aussie Mormon says:

    The term dole is still quite big and in common use in Australia. Google the term “dole bludger” to see the way it’s mostly used (negatively). Though the term dole seems to be gradually being replaced by “centrelink benefits”, centrelink being the name of the government organisation that handles social security over here.

    For the fast offerings that I’ve seen go out, I would guess that most are on government benefits already, so there isn’t that disconnect between trying to get one over the other.

  19. Ann Porter, was it about graduate students hiding savings accounts to qualify for government benefits? Because I remember that too.

  20. Ann Porter, it was Mormon Mentality.

  21. Thanks, everyone. So the impression I’m getting (and correct me if I’m wrong) is (a) outside of the church, people in the US haven’t really used the word “dole” much since the 1930s; (b) in the church, it peaked in the 70s, largely being used by people who were adults in the 30s and/or were quoting people who were adults in the 30s; (c) the word is more common in non-U.S. English-speaking countries; and (d) it’s generally used in a derogatory way, irrespective of country.

  22. My guess is that most of the users of “dole” were conservatives politically. They hate the notion of free-loaders, even if those people are destitute through no fault of their own. They just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (whatever those are) and stop being part of the 47 percent.

  23. Jack Hughes says:

    Over the years I’ve sat through many a church lesson about the “evils of the dole” with that exact phrase used. Most recently, the person teaching it was an elderly man who I know for a fact is dependent on social security. The most emphatic audience comments denouncing government social programs were also from senior citizens in the same boat.

    This kind of hypocrisy happening among our most seasoned members is really holding us back from true Christian charity.

  24. Perhaps readers can read Handbook 2, Chapter 6.1 addressing Welfare, which leads with the quote from the First Presidency. FWIW, no leader is calling someone who receives the dole “evil.” Instead, they are attacking programs that sometimes discourage self reliance.

  25. So I’ll get to this in a later post, but there’s no empirical evidence that I’m aware of that cash assistance discourages self-reliance. For a comment, I’m not going to do extensive research, but my memory is that (excluding the elderly), a vanishingly small percentage of individuals receiving welfare benefits receive those benefits for more than a year or two. And there’s emerging (well, emerged) evidence that cash assistance programs actual increase recipients’ hours worked.

    So again, I’m going to largely avoid the substance of welfare for purposes of this post, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the orthodoxy of welfare = state dependence and no incentive to get a job isn’t reflected in the real world. (And for those handful of people who will respond saying they know people who don’t work because welfare: sure. There may well be such people. There are all sorts of people in the world. But in general, that doesn’t appear to be a problem.)

  26. BTW, IDIAT, thanks for pointing out that “the dole” is enshrined in Handbook 2! I hadn’t bothered looking there.

  27. Yeah, sorry, I didn’t mean to say the people were being called evil, just that the behaviors and attitudes involved in the stereotypical image of the person who won’t work because they expect society to support them was being called evil. I also used the term “freeloaders” not to describe actual people, but to describe this stereotype. Poorly worded.

  28. We also can’t take the word evil to mean existential Hitler sinister bad guy.

    Sufficient to the day are the evils thereof
    If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…

    Yes, evil can stand in for Satan level badness. But I often read it’s use as “weighed down with negative burdens”, or negative adversity. Yes in it’s pure form it means “bad”, but why is it bad. What makes it bad? The fact that it encumbers the person who is “evil” with a burden. Repentance freeing us from our burdens connects nicely to this.

    And it’s interesting to further recognize the word for apple fruit is connected to the word for exercise evil when we’re taking about the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which fruit makes us (at least think we are) wise and as a result encumbers is with all kinds of burdens, both physical, personal, and social. Thanks one dimension of understanding evil as a real burdens we bear from our own weaknesses and not solely Hitler level bad guy behavior

  29. The final thought to that tangent is, yes the dole is it can be evil because it places all kinds of burdens on us.

    It truly is a burden to be without work and dependant on the government for handouts. And especially so if your own ability and desire to work fairly is reduced by it. A real issue.

    2/3 of the employees who have quit my company have filed for unemployment, when they left on their own. And at least half of the people I know who have been on unemployment maximize the opportunity by staying at as long as possible even though they can find work, and even often taking cash jobs to maintain their unemployed status.

    Again, these deceptions people take upon there own soul as a result of the burden of being given something, for nothing (yes that’s a stretch, but it’s too illustrate a point)

  30. Thanks Sam. This was really interesting.

    In New Zealand, the term dole is still used. As with other places, it has a negative connotation. I remember it being used more often a couple of decades ago than it is now. I can’t remember hearing the term used much at church, or local church leaders discouraging the use of government ‘benefits’, as it’s more commonly called now. In the past, I remember people might have said “he’s on the dole” but now it’s more common to hear “He’s on the benefit”.

  31. Another Roy says:

    I have been similarly interested in how the words “entitlements” or “entitlement spending” are used. I was particularly surprised by one elderly church member that passionately insisted that his Social Security benefit was not an entitlement because he had worked for it. Apparently from his understanding, Entitlements are pejorative and represent programs where the recipients feel “entitled” to other people’s money. Maybe it also has the connotation of a handout or charity like the connotation of the word “dole”. This man did not see the irony that he was using his impassioned feelings of entitlement to funds that he had earned to argue that the program was not an entitlement program.

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