Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Poor in Early America

As my readers know, I am interested in the lives of my Irish ancestors who came to Chicago, IL in the mid-nineteenth century. Because they were part of the new urban poor (a group made up of rural people from America and abroad who came to the cities seeking jobs),

From the old to the new world - German emigrants for New York
 embarking on a Hamburg steamer, 1874,
 LC-USZ62-100310, Library of Congress Online Catalog.

I began researching what life was like for those who lived on the margins without secure employment. In my post of November 12, 2014, I wrote about some of the challenges the poor faced in nineteenth century Chicago. This led me to wonder more about the causes of poverty in America and how this society responded to the needs of those without the means to take care of themselves.

Walter I. Trattner, From poor law to welfare state: 
a history of social welfare in America 
 (New York, N.Y. : The Free 
Press, Simon and Schuster, 1999)

I used two books to anchor my exploration into this topic. First, I went to Walter I. Trattner’s book From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America  first published in 1974 and now in its sixth edition. Trattner begins his coverage of the response to poverty by society with colonial America and goes up to President Bill Clinton’s overhaul of the welfare system. In addition to his comprehensive information on the causes and responses to poverty in America, Dr. Trattner also provides an in-depth bibliography after each chapter.

Pauperization: cause and cure, 
Sir Baldwyn
 Leighton, 1871, Internet 

Archive, Wikimedia.
If you research early America, you realize right away that ties to the mother country of England were seen in many areas, including theories on poverty. Debate on this topic flourished in both countries in parlors, newspapers and governing bodies.

We learn from Dr. Trattner that the social system for helping the poor in colonial America was based on the English Poor Law of 1601. (p. 10-12, 16, Trattner.) This law, in  England and similar ones in America in the mid-1600s, allowed towns to levy a tax on householders that was used to provide some relief to the impoverished. Churches also contributed to helping the poor in their parishes. If you were poor in eighteenth century America, you fared better than those who followed you in the next century:

“…the problem of poverty had been defined and the lines of attack against it were marked out. In many areas, selectmen, county justices, overseers of the poor, constables, church wardens, or whoever the authority happened to be, made regular surveys of their areas to determine the condition of the population and to call attention to those who needed assistance….By and large, the poor—at least the white poor—were dealt with humanely and often wisely…especially when compared to later developments.” (p. 27, Trattner.)

Catherine Reef,
Poverty in America (Facts on File,
Infobase Publishing, 2007)

The second book Poverty in America by Catherine Reef is a great reference. It is a textbook, but don’t let that put you off. Not only is the text accessible, it is engrossing, and the book has two very helpful tools at the end of each chapter. First, there is a timeline or “Chronicle of Events” for the period covered in the chapter which lists major happenings and trends, including laws enacted, epidemics, population figures, employment data and different public and private responses to poverty.

Here is an excerpt from the “Chronicle of Events” at the end of Chapter Two “Industrialization, Immigration, and Urban Poverty 1790-1864:”

An epidemic of yellow fever devastates Philadelphia; the city provides emergency relief to 1,200 households each week.
The population of New York City is 60,515.
Approximately 60,000 people live in the Philadelphia area.
The population of New York City reaches 96,373.
War with England reduces foreign trade; domestic manufacturing expands.
The resumption of peace results in an influx of imported goods and domestic wage cuts and layoffs.
New York State spends $245,000 on poor relief.
The United States enters an economic depression known as the Panic of 1819; 500,000 workers are unemployed.” (p. 31-32 Reef.)

If you look carefully at the timeline above, you will notice that external events like epidemics, wars, and trade imbalances have a great effect on the economic well-being of people.
WITNESS logo originally designed
 in 1996, Chiat\Day,

The second end-of-chapter tool is the “Eyewitness Testimony.” This section is composed of quotations from public officials, reporters and editors of newspapers, ministers, staff of almshouses/poorhouses, and people who worked directly with the poor. I found this section particularly moving and sometimes alarming. It is in this testimony that you see two very different philosophies of what causes poverty and how to deal with it. Before taking a look at some of this personal testimony, let’s look at the genesis of these philosophies.

One attitude toward the poor has its roots 2,000 years B.C., became embedded in the sacred texts of the major religions of the world, and continues to a large extent today. (p. 1-2 Trattner) This attitude is that the poor are in their unfortunate position as a result of outside events (such as poor health, unemployment, disability etc.) and deserve to be helped by those with more means in the form of government aid. 

But this charitable philosophy, which flourished in America from colonial times through the mid-eighteenth century, was to have a competing belief that was born from many factors, including: the continuing flow of impoverished immigrants, concentration of the poor in cities which drained public resources, and the feeling on the part of many who had “made it” that only those who were lazy and didn’t take advantage of all the opportunities America offered fell into poverty. (p. 53, Trattner.)

Yard of tenement, New York, N.Y., Detroit Publishing Co. , 
between 1900 and 1910, LC-DIG-det-4a18585, 
Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Now, let’s look at some personal testimonials from Reef’s book that illustrate the opposing philosophies of poverty. These are from “Eyewitness Testimony” at the end of Chapter Two “Industrialization, Immigration, and Urban Poverty 1790-1864:”

This witness, Rev.Ward Stafford, although a man of the cloth, believed that since the poor bore much responsibility for their circumstances:

 “…many charitable institutions, or institutions for affording pecuniary or other equivalent aid to the indigent, exert, on the whole, an unhappy influence on society. Is it not true, that, by these institutions…provision is in fact made for idleness and other vices? If people believe, that they shall be relieved when in distress, they will not generally make exertions, will not labour when they are able and have the opportunity.” Ward Stafford, missionary to the poor of New York City, March 1817, New Missionary Field, p. 43.  (p. 35 Reef.)

For the other side of the debate on the poor, we have this testimony from yet another minister:

“[T]he paupers and the beggars do not constitute the sum total of the POOR. Would to God they did. The great mass of the poor are those who are struggling by toil, privation, and even in destitution, to get bread and clothing for themselves and children, and a place to shelter them from the cold and the storm, without begging, or calling upon the public authorities for aid.” G.W. Quinby, Universalist minister in Yarmouth, Maine, 1856, The Gallows, the Prison, and the Poor-Houses, p. 295. (p. 45 Reef.)

Lights and Shadows of New York life: 
A Woman’s Story of Gospel,
Temperance, Mission and Rescue Work,  

by Helen Campbell, Thomas W. Knox and 
Thomas Byrnes, Hartford,
 Conn: A.D. Worthington
 & Co., 1893,

3:FHCL:614256 p. 275

Later in his testimony, Rev. Quinby describes the horrid conditions that the poor lived under in major American cities in the nineteenth century:

“…I see them living—suffering in garrets and cellars—and pent-up rooms—with no ventilation; damp, filthy, destructive to health and happiness. I see the widow and the orphan—and the honest poor man, with a large family—weak and sickly himself from long and constant toil to furnish bread and clothing for his dear ones.” (p. 45 Reef.)

Lights and Shadows of New York life: A Woman’s Story of Gospel, 
Temperance, Mission and Rescue Work, 
by Helen Campbell, Thomas W. Knox and 
Thomas Byrnes, Hartford, Conn: A.D. 
Worthington & Co., 1893, p. 264 

These two opposing viewpoints towards the poor that we have seen in those who worked directly with them can also be seen in society at large during the early years of America. During the time that most people lived in small villages, worked on farms and didn’t travel far, poverty was manageable: the poor were your relatives or neighbors. Of course, you helped them. But as the nineteenth century dawned, the Industrial Revolution changed poverty. Cities were beacons to the rural poor from America and abroad with their factories that promised jobs. But these jobs were tied to economic conditions that ebbed and flowed.  

Gradually through the nineteenth century, the urban poor filled crowded tenements which became cesspools of disease. The larger society began taking notice of these wretched conditions when it became apparent that disease cannot be relegated to the poor. In “Eyewitness Testimony” at the end of Chapter Two “Industrialization, Immigration, and Urban Poverty 1790-1864,” we hear from Marcus T. Reynolds, an architect, who warned against ignoring the suffering of the poor in The Housing of the poor in American Cities (1892) pp. 34-35:  

“Of all the evils which are due to the tenement-house system, the one that concerns the public most directly is the danger…from the presence in the tenement district of contagious and infectious diseases….The working people, who spend the night in such dirty and disease-breeding places, disperse in the morning, and by the nature of their occupations, find their way to all portions of the city, and are thrown in contact with all classes of society.” (p. 99-100 Reef.)

The tenement - a menace to all, Udo J. Keppler, N.Y., 
 J. Ottmann Lith. Co., Puck Bldg., 
1901 March 20, LC-DIG-ppmsca-25509,  
Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Dr. Trattner also notes that a motive of nineteenth century charity was the need to protect the social order. He quotes a member of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, formed in 1843, who suggested that if society does not help the poor:

(they will) “over-run the city as thieves and beggars and endanger the security of property and life.” (records of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, formed in 1843, p. 69, Trattner.)

From the depths, William Balfour Ker, c1906, LC-USZ62-45985, Library of Congress Online Catalog.

We have thus seen the operation of two different attitudes toward poverty in America from the 1600s through the 1800s. The Industrial Revolution changed the onus of social welfare from a village matter to a large urban concern. Public assistance to the poor mirrored the feeling of society at large.

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