Poverty

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Editor: Paul Finkelman
Date: 2001
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,107 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1330L

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At the beginning of the 1800s most poor Americans outside the South resembled the poor of Europe. They were chiefly orphans, widows, people too old or too sick to work, or seasonal workers out of season. Wealthy people or local governments gave them "outdoor relief," consisting of food, firewood, or small amounts of money known as alms, primarily from a sense of paternalism or community responsibility. State poor laws, generally inherited from English tradition, required towns to take care of their poor.

Industrialization and immigration brought poverty of a new kind and on a new scale to American cities in the 1820s, intensifying in the economic crises of the late 1830s and the 1850s. The number of people needing help increased dramatically, in part from the sporadic nature of all industrial jobs and in part from recurring financial panics. Urban builders for the first time constructed housing exclusively for the poor. Growing numbers of the poor were foreign-born, especially Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine in the 1850s and eastern European immigrants later in the century. Chinese immigrants to the West Coast faced both racial discrimination and especially low wages.

Poor people coped in various ways, usually turning to organized relief only when less-public strategies failed. Believing, often correctly, that their poverty was temporary, poor people survived through small savings, rigid thrift, help from family members, odd jobs, debt, and aid from churches, fraternal associations, and trade unions. More and more in the late 1800s men traveled from cities to surrounding areas looking for work. In the 1870s the term "tramp" became a commonplace description of apparently rootless men who walked the highways or illegally rode the railroads. Most tramps were unmarried men who learned to survive an irregular, frustrating pattern of work followed by struggle. Poor women traveled far less than men, more often working as seamstresses in crowded tenements. Poor children, especially during economic crises, added to household incomes by scavenging from city garbage.

The poorest part of the country after the Civil War was the South, where both whites and African Americans struggled with debt, low cotton prices, laws favorable to employers and creditors, paltry alternatives, and the general postwar devastation. Under sharecropping, by the 1870s the dominant labor system for African Americans, workers farmed year- round for landowners in exchange for a share of the value of the crop. Sharecroppers' main strategies were strenuous labor, thriftiness, large families, and, perhaps above all, movement. Like tramps farther north, sharecroppers moved frequently. But unlike tramps, they usually moved as families, relocating from one plantation to another at the end of crop seasons. Many white families in the Upper South, suffering from debt and the loss of the open range on which they had kept livestock, also became sharecroppers.

In the early and mid-1800s American policies about poverty shifted away from outdoor relief to efforts to teach the poor how to escape their poverty. Antipoverty efforts became more organized, antipoverty rhetoric became more judgmental, and policy shifted, in Christine Stansell's phrase, "from meliorism to active reform" (City of Women, p. 34). Beginning in 1817 with New York's Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, institutions collected the poor under one roof, oversaw their actions, and forced them to work. The state of New York formalized this policy in 1824 with the County Poorhouse Act, which required every county to build at least one institution to house its poor and, ideally, to teach them the emerging middle-class ethics of thrift, constant industry, and sobriety. In the 1840s the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor encouraged wealthy male volunteers to visit the poor to share lessons about surviving and thriving in the American economy. In the 1850s the Children's Aid Society attempted to reform the environment of poor boys, especially by sending the boys out of cities into the supposedly healthier environment of the rural American West.

The absence of poverty became a lightning rod in mid-century regional debates. Northern Republicans saw the chance to rise from poor to independent to wealthy as crucial to the definition of American freedom and believed that slavery violated that freedom. Southern proslavery theorists replied that their region had no poor people. Slavery, they said, saved the South from poverty, insecurity, crime, and possible revolution.

Regional arguments over poverty policy continued in the postbellum period. In 1865 and 1866 southern legislatures passed the Black Codes, the vagrancy and apprenticeship laws designed to keep former slaves working as dependent agricultural laborers. Many Americans outside the South were outraged that these laws tried to reinstate central elements of slavery. From the 1860s through the 1880s, however, northeastern and midwestern states passed or enhanced their own vagrancy laws, making begging a crime punishable by forced labor. Supporters of those laws argued that they were upholding the virtues of work for all people, while the South's Black Codes applied only to former slaves and did not mean to teach lessons.

To deal with the growing numbers of wandering poor, urban police departments in the late 1800s started allowing poor people to sleep in their stations. In the 1880s over 600,000 people did so. But charitable organizations always pressed for approaches that taught more lessons. The Charity Organization Society formed in 1877 with the motto Not Alms but a Friend. Its Friendly Visitors included numerous women trying to teach cleanliness and thrift to poor, especially immigrant women. Toward the end of the century antipoverty efforts took on an increasingly scientific tone. In 1878 the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor made the country's first effort to measure unemployment, and in the 1880s the term "unemployment" was coined to convey both a condition of joblessness and the problems it caused.

The idea that government programs and cultural assimilation could overcome poverty also characterized U.S. policies toward American Indians. After military conquest and forced reservation status had undercut the basis of most American Indians' economies, many Americans interpreted the poverty of Indians as a sign of their backward cultures. Thus, the 1887 Dawes Act forced Indians either to become independent farmers or to risk forfeiting reservation land.

America's poor people rarely coalesced into a unified political group, whether because they viewed poverty as temporary or because they divided over ethnicity or levels of occupational skill. But two movements in the 1890s demonstrated their political potential. The Populist movement tried to unite farming people of the South, Southwest, and Great Plains around the goals of inflationary currency policies, railroad regulation, and cooperative marketing. In 1894 Coxey's Army, consisting of thousands of unemployed midwestern and western men, marched into Washington, D.C., demanding assistance from the federal government.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2350040328