Skip to main content

Poor Relief in the Early America

Poor Relief in Early America

by John E. Hansan, Ph.D.


Early American patterns of publicly funded poor relief emerged mainly from the English heritage of early settlers. The policies and practices of aiding the poor current in England when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts were shaped primarily by the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1594 and 1601, and the Law of Settlement and Removal of 1662. The English poor laws classified poor/dependent people into three major categories and established a requirement for “residency” before aid was provided. Dependent persons were categorized as: vagrant, the involuntary unemployed and the helpless. In effect, the poor laws separated the poor into two classes: the worthy (e.g., orphans, widows, handicapped, frail elderly) and the unworthy (e.g., drunkards, shiftless, lazy). The poor laws also set down the means for dealing with each category of needy persons and established the parish (i.e., local government) as the responsible agent for administering the law. Parish officials were given the authority to raise taxes as needed and use the funds to build and manage almshouses; to supply food and sustenance in their own homes for the aged and the handicapped, (e.g., blind, crippled); and to purchase materials necessary to put the able-bodied to work. If vagrants or able-bodied persons refused to work they could be put in jail.

The preamble to the English Law of Settlement and Removal of 1662 claimed that large numbers of indigent persons were moving to those rural communities where more liberal poor relief was provided to the needy. This law was enacted to permit local authorities to “eject” from their parish an individual or family who might become dependent. The law also authorized local authorities to “pass along” or “remove” persons who could not prove they had contributed to the well being of the parish by their labor or paying taxes.

In time, colonial legislatures and later State governments adopted legislation patterned after these English laws, establishing the American tradition of public responsibility for the care of the destitute while also requiring evidence of legal residence in a particular geographic locality (i.e., town, municipality, county) as a prerequisite for receiving assistance. The most popular means for caring for the poor in early American communities using public funds included: the contract system, auction of the poor, the poorhouse, and relief in the home, or “outdoor relief.” The contract system placed dependent persons under the care of a homeowner or farmer who offered to care for them for a lump sum. The process of “auctioning” the destitute resulted in an individual or family being placed with a local couple or family bidding the lowest amount of public funding needed to care for them. It should be noted the contract system and auctioning the poor were not prevalent outside rural or lightly populated areas. Part of the reason was evidence that the practice of entrusting the care of the poor to the lowest bidder essentially legalized abusive behavior and near starvation existence.


The most prevalent means of caring for the poor with public funds in early America were poorhouses and outdoor relief. The major advantages for a locality funding a poorhouse (sometimes labeled an almshouse or workhouse) to care for dependent persons were: the necessity of working every day would be a deterrent for able bodied persons who were simply lazy or shiftless; and the regimen of daily life in a congregate setting would instill habits of economical and virtuous living in persons who were destitute because of moral weakness or self-indulgence. The facts revealed that only a small proportion of residents were able-bodied, and then usually in the winter months when jobs were scarce. In many areas, poorhouses became a refuge for the sick, the severely disabled, frail elderly and homeless children who were unable to work and had no one to care for them. Complicating the use of a poorhouse for the care of all destitute persons was the necessary mixing of the worthy and the unworthy poor. Often living in the same congregate setting were able-bodied adults as well as dependent persons such as children, the aged, the sick and the disabled. Eventually, separate facilities were established to care for the different populations, with the able-bodied being placed in a “workhouse” or “poor farm.”

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the conditions and reputation of poorhouses had deteriorated significantly. There was growing evidence of unseemly rates of death and disease, illicit births, lack of discipline, graft, and mismanagement. Perhaps worst of all, the costs of maintaining poorhouses increased beyond the expectations and promises of public officials. It soon became apparent to some public officials that it would be less expensive to provide some public assistance to the community’s dependent persons living with friends or relatives, or while living in their own homes.

Outdoor Relief

The nature and amount of outdoor relief varied widely in early America but it was seldom generous or widely available. The concept of public assistance conflicted with Calvinist values and was sometimes viewed as impinging on the personal gratifications derived from private works of charity. The beginning of a more general acceptance of the role of outdoor relief was revealed by a 1857 report of a New York Senate, “Select Committee to Visit Charitable and Penal Institutions.”

“…A still more efficient and economical auxiliary in supporting the poor, and in the prevention of absolute pauperism consists in the opinion of the committee, in the proper and systematic distribution of “out door” relief. Worthy indigent persons should, if possible, be kept from the degradation of the poor house, by reasonable supplies of provisions, bedding, and other absolute necessaries, at their own homes. Half the sum requisite for their maintenance in the poor house would often save them from destitution, and enable them to work in their households and their vicinity, sufficiently to earn the remainder of their support during the inclement season when indigence suffers the most, and when it is most likely to be forced into the common receptacles of pauperism, whence it rarely emerges without a loss of self respect and a sense of degradation…”

Despite the societal and religious values prevalent in this period of American history, opponents of outdoor relief found it difficult to argue in support of poor houses as a more suitable solution for helping relieve the economic distress of the aged, severely handicapped, widows and orphaned children. Further contributing to the acceptance of public assistance in the form of outdoor relief was the emergence of urban areas as centers of labor during the 19th Century. Several economic depressions and other business turndowns resulted in large numbers of the able-bodied being unemployed with no money with which to buy needed food and clothing for themselves or their families. Large numbers of unemployed workers often participated in demonstrations and protests of one kind or another. Others became violent. It was during these episodes of unrest that local public officials responded with various types of public employment programs, soup kitchens, and other forms of public financed charity designed to quell the protests or stabilize the environment.

Editor’s Note: The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City contains a wealth of information about the poorhouse and outdoor relief in New York City, as well as interesting details and accounts about their operating budgets during the 1930s.  For more information, visit

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2011). Poor relief in early America. Retrieved [date accessed] from /programs/poor-relief/.

10 Replies to “Poor Relief in the Early America”

  1. can anyone tell me where to find history of workhouses in New Orleans La.
    mypaternal great grandfather Henry Joseph Mitchell was warden of a workhouse in the
    mid 1800’s.

    • I do not know of a particular source for the information you are seeking; nevertheless, most large cities and states have archives and if you take the trouble to search you may find the information about your great grandfather. Good luck. Jack Hansan

    • Betty, I just saw a census online for the new orleans workhouse that I think was conducted in 1860. I am trying to determine when the work house system was finally abandoned in the city.

  2. A “parish” in England circa 1600 was not a “local government.” It was a parish. It was a geopolitical unit of the church. This article fails to address the religious dimension of this social phenomenon. Nowadays, many irreligious people love to declare how terrible the Christian church is, and how terrible is organized religion.

    Sure, if we refuse to acknowledge history.

    Governments used to largely ignore welfare issues. Those issues were left to the populace. In Christiandom, this was the church. The topic of “widows and orphans” is encountered regularly in the Old Testament and to a fair amount in the New Testament, although necessary only as a touchstone in the NT since so many were familiar with the OT.

    Two trends, at least, led to the identification of local parishes as the assigned administrators of secular law regarding the poor: economic efficiency was leading to displacement, and society was becoming secularized.

    The church, those nasty, misogynist, stingey, racist Christians, had always fulfilled the role of watching out for the poor, defenseless, and needy. As society changed, this became overwhelmed, and the secular government decided to step in – but not to take over.

    The first couple of hundred years of poor laws declared parishes to be hybrid religious and governmental geopolitical entities. Roles and responsibilities were legislated. This effort to address the poor arose because THE CHURCH HAD ALREADY BEEN DOING THIS FOR A LONG TIME.

    Those who are anti-religious prefer to downplay this history.

    • Thanks for your comment. While your point about parishes in general is well-taken, I think you are applying modern politics to a historical period in which they do not entirely fit. Parishes had the primary responsibility for administering and enforcing laws during this early period in America. While that does not make them completely analogous to modern notions of government, they were in fact the governing units of communities during this time. “Parish” as used to describe a governing unit here has a meaning more closely akin to that used in the state of Louisiana, where municipal divisions are still referred to as “parishes.”

      Further, I think it’s worth considering that there was no separation of church and state at this time. The church both governed and was a religious body. You are correct when you say that faith communities have historically taken primary responsibility for social welfare needs, but as both government and faith communities have evolved, some of that responsibility has been transferred to government.

Comments for this site have been disabled. Please use our contact form for any research questions.