As the presidential campaigns turns into the home stretch, we realize that we have not heard much about the poor and policy toward the poor. The problems of the middle class – including their fear of joining the poor – is everyone’s focus; that’s where the votes are. But arguments about policies toward the poor will return; the controversy is an American perennial.
Central to the contentiousness is figuring out what the key principle of American poverty policy ought to be: Is it Christian charity, which implies simply feeding the hungry and clothing the naked? Or, is it moral rehabilitation, which implies teaching the poor “to fish” for themselves and letting those who won’t learn sink? Or is it economic efficiency, which implies keeping the poor alive but at minimum cost to the taxpayer?
Two recent papers in The Journal of the Early Republic illuminate these concerns in an era when assistance to the poor was much more constricted, more focused on the very worst off, more punitive, and concentrated on placing the poor in their own, collective home: the almshouse.
The decades leading up to and following the Revolution saw increases in the numbers of the poor and the challenge of dealing with them. Trying to handle poverty through private and church charity floundered; local governments increasingly had to step in. During the same era, community leaders’ views shifted, from seeing being poor as a God-given fate (and a God-given opportunity for the blessed to share their blessings) to seeing poverty as a failure of individuals’ morality and will-power. The judgmental opinion spread despite the evident causes of mass poverty – economic downturns, disasters such as city fires, wars leaving behind widows, and the like. Both trends, in numbers and in thought, brought more punitive policies (see, e.g., here).
Town elders dealt with many of the poor by chasing them out of town. Others they provided with “outdoor relief” — direct cash or supplies (what we would call “welfare”), finding a household that would shelter them, or “auctioning” the poor to families that would keep them as servants.
In the 18th century, more towns started using “indoor relief”: housing the poor in an institution, an almshouse. (The first one had opened in Boston in 1664.) Almshouse residents were as varied as newborns and their unwed mothers, out-of-work seamen, recent immigrants, the physically ill, drunkards, “maniacs,” and the elderly destitute. Some residents came in freely seeking shelter; others were brought in by kin (say, a husband housing his family there while he went away for a job); yet others were forced to enter by authorities. Many residents revolved in and out; many stayed for years or a lifetime.
Ruth Wallis Herndon’s paper (gated) on the Boston Almshouse, 1795 to 1817, describes the life experiences of several women who passed through its doors. Rose Carrol, an Irish immigrant, was one. Rose entered the almshouse in 1810 with a son in hand and a daughter in womb; her husband Barney stayed outside. Rose and her two children left the next spring but then returned shortly afterward, this time with Barney. In 1813, Rose’s daughter died, but she had another son, conceived at the almshouse. During the 1810s, various members of the family left and re-entered the almshouse. Barney disappears from the record in 1815, presumably having died. In 1820, the younger son, James, then age 8, is “bound out” as an apprentice. With one brief term outside the doors of the almshouse, Rose returns alone in 1828, at the age of 56, for good, spending another 26 years inside the almshouse.
The good citizens of Boston never figured out how to help Rose; she never got the skills nor the financial support to live on her own. As with many others, indefinite institutionalization was the solution to poverty, as if it were a severe disability or a crime.
Managers of almshouses struggled to balance their Christian duty with their doubts about how deserving the poor were and the demands on them to keep the costs down. In 1822, the Mayor of New York installed at the Bellevue almshouse a multi-man device to turn a grain mill that required grueling labor from inmates. He called it a “discipline mill” for “terrorizing ‘sturdy beggars’” (here, p. 504).
Monique Bourque’s article (gated) about the Philadelphia almshouse, 1790 to 1840, describes efforts by its managers to turn the facility into a business that would pay for itself both by the income it made and the moral lessons it taught. Expert opinion held that requiring work by almshouse residents – whether maintenance work such as cooking and cleaning, or contract labor to outside businesses – would “cure” residents of their laziness and, at the least, discourage many of the lazy from ever moving in.
About 1800, Philadelphia’s almshouse included a “manufactory” for producing textiles that would compete with English imports and local producers. It did reasonably well for a while, but was undercut when British textiles returned after the War of 1812; it limped along into the 1880s. Part of the almshouse’s problems derived from uncertainty about its mission: a charity, a reformatory, or a business? Managers worried, for example, that if they adopted efficient labor-saving technology, the almshouse poor would have fewer chances to be “cured” of their sloth (and local artisans might rise up to destroy the machines that undercut their business). They faced the common problems of manufacturers, such as enforcing work rules, stopping pilfering, and getting skilled workers. At some points, business motivations led them to hire outside craftsmen to work in the almshouse manufactory. After all, they were trying to save taxpayer money by making the almshouse self-supporting – to little avail.
The almshouses are gone, along with the debtors’ prisons. But the complexity and murkiness of our goals when it comes to policies about the poor — to help, to reform, to save money — continue to bedevil our efforts to do the right thing.