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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · August 01, 2018

Continuing the Conversation: "Poor Relief"

conferences 11 min read

The following post is the result of questions raised during a panel (#33) at the OI’s 24th annual conference, June 14–17, 2018. If you have a conversation you would like to continue post-conference, or materials to share (such as a bibliography), please send them to the OI at

And be sure to join us for the 25th annual conference in Pittsburgh, June 13–16, 2019. Proposals can be submitted via our website.

“Social Welfare and the Boundaries of Community in Early America”: Continuing the Conversation

by Laurel Daen, Gabriel Loiacono, Nicole Schroeder, and Alyssa Penick

Our panel at the OI Conference last month focused on social welfare and community in early America. Laurel Daen discussed the practice of boarding non-residents in Massachusetts, Nicole Schroeder examined the rise of the state-funded hospital system in Philadelphia, and Alyssa Penick compared forms of welfare in colonial Maryland and Virginia. Gabriel Loiacono served as our chair and comment.

During the panel, Alyssa raised a question that struck us all as important—both for the field of social welfare history and early American history more generally. “Based on your research,” Alyssa asked, “should poor relief be called poor relief?” In this post, we will each respond to this question, building on comments we made during our panel. Laurel will begin by explaining what poor relief is and why it deserves study. Gabe, Nicole, and Alyssa will then discuss the pros and cons of the term “poor relief” itself.


Early Americans commonly used the phrase “poor relief” to describe the system whereby needy individuals received cash and supplies from local, colonial, and state governments. For example, town selectmen and vestrymen provided goods (firewood, food) and services (nursing, medical care) to poor people who were members of their towns and parishes. Colonies and states also paid for the support of ailing “strangers” or people without residency who required immediate medical assistance. Over the course of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the forms of poor relief changed. Outdoor methods (direct cash payments, e.g.) declined as institutions (almshouses, asylums) grew in number and prominence. In addition, politicians and taxpayers became increasingly invested in distinguishing the “idle” (who were seen as able to work) from the “impotent” (who were needy through no fault of their own) and curtailing support to the former.

As my panel-mates and I stressed during our panel, studying poor relief provides a useful means for assessing conceptions and boundaries of community in early America. In late 18th-century Massachusetts (the period covered by my paper), annual expenditures on poor relief totaled more than half of the state budget. These high costs sparked extensive debate among legislators and everyday people, who discussed the best ways to improve efficiency and reduce expenses. These conversations—well documented in newspapers, legislative minutes, and personal writings—provide insight into how many individuals conceived of their communities. Who deserved care? Who did not? Who belonged? And who had the authority to decide? These questions, central to the study of poor relief, are central to the study of early America. But, as Alyssa asked provocatively during our panel, when considering such queries, is “poor relief” even the correct term to use?


Should poor relief be called poor relief? Since Alyssa asked that question at our panel, I cannot quite make up my mind. On the one hand, poor relief is a term that English speakers used at the time, whether in Britain, Britain’s colonies, or the USA. Part of me wants to be true to them, to their language, to how they described what they were doing. Thinking about relief for the poor helps us to remember that poor relief was in fact intended to help the poor. I would argue that while there are elements of social control in early American poor relief, as well as a lot of concern that it cost too much, there are also important elements of benevolence. To ignore early Americans’ desire to help those in need is to ignore a powerful motivation for the most expensive thing taxpayers paid for before 1830.

On the other hand, when I talk about poor relief with my friends, family, even fellow historians, I often describe it as “welfare” because so many people have never heard of poor relief. It takes some explanation. Also, as pointed out during our panel, poor relief not only benefitted the poor. It also assisted the grocers, nurses, firewood splitters, and others who earned money from the local treasury for the services they provided to the poor. Those are two good reasons to find another term for “poor relief.” But what to call it? Welfare, with its connotations of the twentieth century? Social Something, which sounds both vague and vaguely European to American ears? I am not sure I can think of a better term than poor relief.


For Philadelphians in the early 1800s, poverty was a community issue, but many feared that this community was growing out of hand. Increasing numbers of impoverished people challenged norms of private charity and moved relief into the hands of government institutions. In my opinion, “poor relief” refers to these state-funded methods of assistance and not to other forms of charity (individual giving, ethnic societies, church relief, etc.). “Poor relief” (the state-sponsored system) was not set up to gain glory in the eyes of God or as a source of empathetic outreach. Instead, it was protected by law and ground into English and American social customs.

Recognizing “poor relief” as something distinct from other types of charitable aid is important because it helps us recognize the hierarchies of power, wealth, and control that characterized the system. For example, poor relief was premised upon a capitalist hierarchy. Although (as my fellow panelists have mentioned) state-funded assistance often benefited those who were not poor, inherent in the system is an assumption that there will always be a class of individuals at a financial disadvantage. When we assess “poor relief,” we must evaluate whether it truly aided those who it was created for.


Throughout our papers and our conversation, I was struck by the fact that we all relied on the term “poor relief” to describe many forms of financial aid distributed by state officials and borne by the public. While the phrase “poor relief” serves as a useful shorthand, it also suggests that alleviating poverty lay at the heart of this system. But, poverty was often not the justification for distributing public funds, and those who pocketed the funds were often not the poor themselves. So, I posed the question, do we lose anything with the term poor relief and are there better alternatives?

Upon reflection, it seems like a more nuanced use of the term could enrich discussions of healthcare in early America. Gabe’s comment pointed out that all of our papers highlighted how state-funded medical care was integral to poor relief. There was (and still is) a close relationship between medical disability and poverty.  Successful relief claimants in the 18th and 19th centuries often cited disability, infirmity, or sickness in their requests for support. Chesapeake parishes and counties hired physicians to treat the public, paid midwives and ordinary people to nurse their neighbors, and reimbursed otherwise middling patients for expensive medical treatments and medicines. In these cases, public funds were supporting healthcare, rather than alleviating poverty. While there is no hard and fast line between medical care and poor relief, this ongoing conversation has convinced me of the need to more clearly distinguish public healthcare from poor relief and to emphasize who ultimately pocketed relief funds.

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