|Title||Historical Background on the Poor and Poor Relief in Early 19th-Century New England|
|Type||Papers and Articles: Historical Notes|
A brief summary of the poor and poor relief in early nineteenth-century New England.
By 21st-century American standards, most early New Englanders were poor. As a result of technological innovation and economic growth, American society as a whole has grown much wealthier than it was two centuries ago. What were once luxuries are now seen as necessities. The sizes of our cars, homes, and even our meals have grown ever larger. Most of us have more possessions than our parents and grandparents did. Yet the same was true for early 19th-century Americans as well. The expansion of the market economy and the beginnings of industrialization were already transforming the standard of living. For example, the living standards of the poor in the 1830s were equivalent to those of most people a hundred years earlier. At the same time there was greater economic inequality. Most people were better off, but there was a growing disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor. Attitudes were being transformed as well. How Americans perceived poverty and thought the poor should be cared for were also changing by the early 1800s.
For centuries, most New Englanders viewed poverty as an unfortunate but inevitable part of a pre-ordained social order. While some people were chronically poor, or required care because of advanced age, or a physical or mental disability, the need for public assistance could also come suddenly through such calamities as a fire, illness, or the death of a parent or spouse.
Families were expected, and in many cases required by law, to care for relations in need. Sometimes those on the edge of poverty or who had suffered from a sudden calamity were temporarily aided by private benevolent groups. Ladies’ charitable societies, for example, existed in many towns and might loan clothing or household linens, or provide other assistance, to a family in need. Yet many poor had no kin to turn to, and private charities had limited means and their assistance was very selective. The last resort for those in need was town poor relief.
The poorest of the poor were the 1-2% of the population who had no alternative but to “go upon the town” and turn to their local government for assistance in order to survive. The town’s Overseers of the Poor (who frequently were also the town’s Selectmen, or board of administrators) might use public funds to give “outdoor” or “partial” relief in the form of a small grant of money or supplies, such as a barrel of flour, to a pauper or a poor family otherwise able to get by. But most who “went upon the town” required more care than this.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, those unable to care for themselves were usually taken into the homes of others. When the family units broke down, the Overseers placed paupers in private homes and paid individuals to care for them. This typically led to the break-up of poor families. Orphaned children were “bound out” until adulthood as apprentices to local families who could use their labor. Adults, too, were placed in unrelated families, and often required to move from year to year. Under a system called the “vendue” (from the French vendre, “to sell”) the Overseers each year auctioned the care of the poor off to the lowest bidder, who then became responsible for them. Sometimes a single contractor agreed to care for all of the town’s poor, while at other times citizens bid on the care of individual paupers.
By the first decade of the 19th century, opinions began to change about the causes of poverty and the best ways to care for society’s poor. The Massachusetts legislature appointed a committee to study this subject in 1820, and in 1821 the chairman, Josiah Quincy, reported their findings. In one of their conclusions they distinguished between the “impotent poor,” who were incapable of work (the elderly and the severely disabled), and the “able poor,” who could labor to help support themselves. Even though most people on town relief fell into the “impotent poor” category, the report focused most of their attention on the problem of the “able poor,” generally viewing them as irresponsible and undeserving of charity. The committee expressed an increasingly prevalent attitude among 19th-century Americans. In a land of opportunity, why were some people still poor? With a declining belief in divine predestination and a growing commitment both to individualism and unlimited social and economic progress, the “able poor” were seen as personally to blame for their own condition. Laziness and intemperance led the list of likely causes. Care of the poor was swept up in a rising tide of general social reform, and change was in the air.
By the 1840s, most New England communities had changed their methods of caring for the poor. Partial, “outdoor” relief was still granted to some, but this was increasingly seen as expensive, inefficient, and encouraging laziness and bad habits. Most towns also abandoned the old vendue system of privatized care in favor of a more centralized, institutional solution. Most New Englanders had come to believe that the vendue system was degrading and morally debilitating for the paupers, and often kept them in unhealthy environments where they were poorly cared for or even exploited. Instead, towns increasingly placed their poor into single, town-owned “poor farms” in rural areas, and “work houses” in urban communities. Proponents of this system argued that work houses and poor farms, despite a sizable initial investment, would ultimately be more efficient and economical. The poor, they argued, might be able to grow their own food and work to contribute to their own care (often ignoring the fact that most of the paupers were infirm). Poor farms, well organized and managed by a single superintendent, would remove the poor from morally unhealthy social influences and provide a positive moral and temperate environment. Poor farms would also promote personal industry and allow the poor to receive better care in comfortable, permanent homes instead of being moved annually from family to family.
As time went by, poor farms exhibited their own flaws and failed to fulfill the warmest expectations of proponents. By the mid-20th century, most of them had closed. Society today continues to search for a “better” way and to debate the merits and drawbacks of private versus institutional care for those in need of public assistance.