|Title||The Quincy Report on Poor Relief, Public Record|
|Type||Primary Sources: Public Record|
In 1820, the Massachusetts General Court (State Legislature) appointed a special committee, headed by Josiah Quincy, a well-known politician and reformer. The committee’s task was to investigate the methods used for the relief of paupers in Massachusetts towns, to study the problems of the poor relief system, and to recommend revisions of the laws on poor relief. The Quincy Committee sent out a survey or questionnaire to all the towns in the state, asking them to describe their poor relief systems and the problems they encountered. The Committee’s final report, published in 1821, summarized its findings, which were based on the returned questionnaires and its study of poor relief in England. The Committee recommended the extension of the poorhouse system and served as the basis for the extension of the poor farm system throughout the state.
Excerpts from the report of the Quincy Committee, 1821
…In the opinion of your Committee, it is of the highest consequence, that all the relations of the subject should be well considered and the facts and reasons, upon which any course, which may be adopted is founded, should be well understood, not only by the Legislature, but by their fellow citizens, previously to any material change in the existing laws. From the nature of the subject, any change, to be beneficial, must obtain not only a sanction, from the sentiment, but a cooperation of the active support of the community. It will probably require, in some parts of the Commonwealth, that some prejudices should be yielded; and that some usual and long established habits of distributing public charity to the poor, should be altered. Those, who may be called to abandon these prejudices and habits, will be more likely to give efficient support to any system, which may be recommended, if the conviction of their understandings shall precede the exertion of legislative authority…
Your Committee…ask leave to state…the actual condition of pauperism in Massachusetts.
The principle of pauper laws is that of a state, or public, or as sometimes called, a compulsory provision for the poor. The poor are of two classes. 1) The impotent poor; in which denomination are included all, who are wholly incapable of work, through old age, infancy, sickness or corporeal debility. 2) The able poor; in which denomination are included all, who are capable of work, of some nature, or other; but differing in the degree of their capacity, and in the kind of work, of which they are capable.
With the respect to the first class; that of poor, absolutely impotent, were there none other than this class, there would be little difficulty, either as to the principle, or as to the mode of extending relief.
But another class exists; that of the able poor; in relation to which, and from the difficulty of discriminating between this class and the former, and of apportioning the degree of public provision to the degree of actual impotency, arise all the objections to the principle of the existing pauper system. The evils, also, which are attributed to this system, of diminishing the industry, destroying the economical habits and eradicating the providence of the labouring class of society may all be referred to the same source;—the difficulty of discriminating between the able poor and the impotent poor and of apportioning the degree of public provision to the degree of actual impotency.
…It is laborious to ascertain the exact merit of each applicant. Supply is sometimes excessive; at others misplaced. The poor begin to consider it [relief] as a right; next, they calculate upon it as an income. The stimulus to industry and economy is annihilated, or weakened; temptations to extravagance and dissipation are increased, in proportion as public supply is likely, or certain, or desirable. The just pride of independence, so honorable to man, in every condition, is thus corrupted by the certainty of public provision; and is either weakened, or destroyed according to the facility of its attainment, or its amount.
Views of this kind, connected with the experience of England, under the operation of her poor laws, have led some of her most distinguished statesmen and writers on public economy, to denounce all public, or compulsory provision for the poor, as increasing the evil they pretend to remedy, and augmenting the misery they undertake to prevent…
Your Committee in placing, in their strong light the objections to the entire principle of our existing pauper laws, have had no intention to recommend, nor any idea that their investigations would ultimately result in, an abolition of those laws altogether from Massachusetts. . .
Taking it for granted, therefore, that the present system of making some public, or compulsory provision for the poor is too deeply riveted in the affections, or the moral sentiment of our people to be loosened by theories, however plausible, or supported by, however high names, or authority; your Committee next turned their attention to the various modes, which, it appeared by the returns from the various Overseers of the Poor in this Commonwealth, had been adopted in different towns and compared the results of their experience, with that of Great Britain; so far as they had the means of such comparison. Your Committee found these modes to be four.
1. Provision for the poor, by letting them out to the lowest bidder, in families at large, within the town.
2. Provision, by letting them to the lowest bidder, together; that is, all to one person.
3. Provision, by supplies, in money, or articles, at their own houses.
4. Provision, by poor, or alms, houses.
As to the first mode, your Committee do not consider it as of a nature to require much examination, or analysis. It is obviously applicable only to very small towns. That it is exceptionable, in its principle, is well illustrated, by the reflections of the Overseers of the Poor of the Town of Danvers, annexed to this report. And how liable to abuses it is, may be gathered from the remarks of those of the Town of Chilmark, who state, “that in that town the average expense of supporting adults and children is about one dollar and thirty cents per head, per week; this,” they add, “we consider a large sum, but the poor being sometimes boarded with those, who are in want themselves, it is not lost to the town.”
As to the second mode, it partakes of the character of the preceding. It is also, as is well observed by the Overseers of the Town of Sutton, “an approximation to the method of supporting them in a poor house and is a diminution of the expense.” It is obviously more unexceptionable, in other respects, than boarding them to the lowest bidder at large.
As to the third mode, provision for the poor, by supplies of money, or articles, at their own houses, the result of the experience of England is unequivocally stated to be, that “the discretion of the Overseers of the Poor, exercised in this way has been the source of abuse, mismanagement and waste; that supplies, if given in money, are mischievous and often misapplied; when given for necessaries, as expended by the men, in ale, and by the women, for tea and sugar; that when given in articles of food and clothing, they were often sold to obtain luxuries, encouraged other applications, checked exertion and promoted habits of indolence and dissipation; and that the great object of English policy ought to be to eradicate this mode of parish support.”
Your Committee apprehend that the general current of the evidence resulting from the annexed returns from towns, who have adopted the system of poor houses and prohibited parish support, in private families, coincides with the general experience of England in this respect.
As to the fourth and last mode: Provision by poor, or alms, houses, the experience of England has resulted in this, that “in every case, where means of work were connected with such houses, in united districts, and when they have been superintended by the principal inhabitants, they have been greatly beneficial. This has been done in various parts of England, by a number of parishes* being united into one district, with evident good effect, both as it respects the better condition of the poor, and also as to the reduction of the expense.”
For this purpose, it is obvious, that they ought to be well regulated, under the superintendance [sic] of the principal inhabitants of the vicinity; and be conducted, systematically, with strictness and intelligence.
As, however, to the economy of this mode of providing for the poor, by means of an alms house, with a small farm, or extent of land, sufficient for agricultural purposes, attached, your Committee apprehend that nothing can be added to the demonstration of its advantages from the annexed abstract of returns from the towns of Rowley, Hubbardston, Reading, Hingham, Duxbury, Danvers, Roxbury, Newburyport, Quincy, Dorchester, Andover, West Cambridge and Salem, all of which returns contain a mass of information, highly honorable to their respective boards of overseers, and well worthy to be disseminated through the state, not only by way of example to other towns, but as presenting, in the apprehension of your Committee a series of facts, well authenticated and sufficient to be made the basis of an uniform system of provision for paupers throughout the Commonwealth.
Upon the whole, your Committee apprehend that the experience both of England and of Massachusetts concur in the five following results, which may be well adopted as principles, in relation to the whole subject.
1. That of all modes of providing the poor, the most wasteful, the most expensive, and most injurious to their morals and destructive of their industrious habits is that of supply in their own families.
2. That the most economical mode is that of Alms Houses; having the character of Work Houses, or Houses of Industry, in which work is provided for every degree of ability in the pauper; and thus the able poor made to provide, partially, at least for their own support; and also to the support, or at least the comfort of the impotent poor.
3. That of all modes of employing the labor of the pauper, agriculture affords the best, the most healthy, and the most certainly profitable; the poor being thus enabled, to raise, always, at least their own provisions.
4. That the success of these establishments depends upon their being placed under the superintendance of a Board of Overseers, constituted of the most substantial and intelligent inhabitants of the vicinity.
5. That of all causes of pauperism, intemperance, in the use of spirituous liquors, is the most powerful and universal…
While, therefore, your Committee on the one hand are of opinion, that no subject more imperiously claims the attention and solicitude of the Legislature:—that it is the duty of society by general arrangements, to attempt to diminish the increase of pauperism, as well as to make provision for that which is inevitable; the diminution of the evil, is best, and most surely to be effected by making Alms Houses, Houses of Industry, and not abodes of idleness, and denying for the most part all supply from public provision, except on condition of admission into the public institution;—and that of all modes of employing the industry of the poor, the best is in agriculture; yet on the other hand, they are also of opinion, that no ultimate system should be founded upon these principles, until they have been laid before their fellow citizens, for their contemplation . . .
For the Committee,
JOSIAH QUINCY, Chairman.
Glossary*parishes - British : a subdivision of a county often coinciding with an original ecclesiastical parish and constituting the unit of local government
SourceJosiah Quincy, Massachusetts, General Court, Committee on Pauper Laws [Boston, Printed by Russell and Gardner, 1821], 1-9. Edited by Old Sturbridge Village.