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.