The Turn of The Century Poor House & Outdoor Relief
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The Turn of The Century Poor House & Outdoor Relief

Poorhouses were funded by federal, state, and local taxes. They were residential institutions where indigent and unemployed people were committed before public assistance and social security benefits were available to the elderly, disabled, and needy. There were some benefits given to the poor, but they were unlike Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Aid for The Permanent and Totally Disabled (APTD), or Aid for Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), three of the more current welfare programs available in the last twenty years. There wasn't an ongoing program to receive regular funds for months or years.

Poorhouses were funded by federal, state, and local taxes.  They were residential institutions where indigent and unemployed people were committed before public assistance and social security benefits were available to the elderly, disabled, and needy.  There were some benefits given to the poor, but they were unlike Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Aid for The Permanent and Totally Disabled (APTD), or Aid for Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), three of the more current welfare programs available in the last twenty years.  There wasn't an ongoing program to receive regular funds for months or years. 

Poverty was seen as something that was your own fault, most of the time, at the turn of the century, sadly.  If you were unemployable, sick, or down on your luck, there were no housing assistance programs, unemployment programs, or social security benefits available for needy, elderly, or disabled.  People could get help with food, fuel, clothing, or medical treatment to be paid out of tax funds through Outdoor Relief Funds. Outdoor Relief could be given to individuals or families living in their own homes or to homeless people and families.  

Before there was Outdoor Relief and Poorhouses, the financial, medical, and social responsibility of elderly and disabled folks or families who were having a hard time with their finances was expected to be attended by family, friends, or other charitable folks in the community.  At times, certain citizens who had no financial means could be put up for auction as "indentured servants". They would serve for a specific period of time to repay whatever debt they owed to the family who "purchased" them. The "servant" and their family, if they had one, would work for a person or family who bought them in return for their financial needs being attended to.  Does this sound like slavery?  Well, it was sometimes.  The only difference was that you could eventually free yourself when your debts were paid.  If the winner of the auction was a good person, they might be treated well.  If the winner of the auction was a bad person, the indentured servant was in quite a bind.  They could welcome themselves to the life of a slave and kiss the next few years goodbye.  There wasn't much that could be done if you needed money and didn't have any before Outdoor Relief and Poorhouses.

There were a few other limited options before Poorhouses.  If you were lucky enough to locate one, there were some private poorhouses where one could be contracted to work.  The house would generate its funds to operate by selling excess goods produced on its farm.  The rest of the food would feed its workers and staff.  Many of these houses created by charities, churches, and wealthy philanthropists who wanted to use their funds to help the less fortunate while they help themselves.

To get Outdoor Relief, you needed to make an appointment to request said relief form "The Poor Master".  This individual was a Health and Human Services worker who oversaw government poverty programs in a particular locale.  If the need was a long term one, or if the need was in excess of what a city or town could fund, single folks and entire families were sent to the Poorhouse instead of receiving Outdoor Relief funds.  The government-funded residential "farms" were created to provide cheap alternatives to Outdoor Relief. 

Those considered to be a public nuisance would often be placed at a Poor House against their will. Begging in the street for money, food, and anything else you might ask strangers for was considered to be a public nuisance.  The popular notion at the turn of the century was that a good work ethic and being made to work would cure people of their ails that make them unable to get work.  Of course, some circumstances couldn't be remedied.  For instance, you can't resurrect a woman's dead husband, because Necromancers are fictional.  You also can't make a mentally ill person well by putting them to work.  Its pretty much just as ineffective as a lobotomy or hydrotherapy.   Keep in mind, some "undesirables" who were placed at Poor Farms were sex offenders and petty criminals, or other sinister characters who weren't supervised around people they could easily victimize.  They lived alongside children, the elderly, physically and mentally disabled, and other people who were defenseless in this type of crowed community.  The accommodations weren't luxurious either.  It wasn't The Four Seasons. 

Eventually, Poorhouses were scrutinized and investigated very closely.  The government discovered Poor Houses weren't so cost-effective after all.  Needless to say, there were social problems in the institutions and complaints of horrible crimes that I won't elaborate on, but you can imagine what atrocities could ensue in such an environment.  At long last, The State Board of Charities, the overseers for poorhouse conditions, passed applicable laws that freed children as well as physically and mentally handicapped people placed at Poorhouses. It was clearly unsuitable for these people to be placed in an environment where they can't defend themselves.  More appropriate institutional accommodations and orphanages were utilized to properly place them.  

In the 1930's, welfare laws drastically changed after The United States has experienced the hard blow of The Great Depression, which put all Americans in "the poorhouse".  Workman's compensation, unemployment, and social security started to help some paupers who were unemployed through no fault of their own. When children and the physically and mentally ill were removed from these Poorhouses, they houses were left almost exclusively with elderly people.  Poorhouses evolved into convalescent homes for the elderly, mostly people without proper financing to live elsewhere. Those who were totally indigent and not a minor or elderly person, and didn't fit into the other categories were sent to homeless shelters.  

Poorhouses were as good as gone by the late 1950's, because public perception changed after the depression.  People who lived in many walks of life learned what it was like to starve and not have proper medical care or hygienic needs met.  When people were put in the shoes of the poor, their attitudes changed very quickly!

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Comments (7)

I wrote up this as well in my women's issues series

Very interesting and there's a poor house in the next town over from us. I know people who used to work there and they have stories to tell. Nice job on your article.

Well done composition Amy.

Ranked #5 in Economics

Thanks very much, Ron!

A really interesting read, thanks Amy.

A really interesting post and a great account on Poor Houses. Thank you.

Ranked #5 in Economics

You're welcome!  The lives of those in different classes, especially people who aren't very wealthy and don't own property interests me.  I am so grateful, as a single mother to be living in a time when I am allowed to work and when I can ask for help if I absolutely need it.  Its a scary thought to have nothing to fall back on at all, no medical care, no food, and no home...it was sad, really...

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