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Cover Your Eyes: A Peak at the Grisly State of Poverty and Disability Supports in the 1800s


A popular song of the 1840s relates the sorry tale of “The Workhouse Boy”. The poor unfortunate disappears one December evening and cannot be found even after his fellow inmates have been sent to search for him:

“Ve sought in each corner each crevice ve knew/ Ve sought down the yard ve sought up the flue.”

Yet to no avail. The weeks pass and still there’s no sign of the lad until one day when the huge copper cauldron needs to be fixed, Therein lie a pile of bones still encased in grotty trousers. The miserable wretch had tried to help himself to an extra helping of thin soup and had tumbled in. Our narrator muses that he most likely met his end with the hand of one of the reviled and revolting overseers.

Although the above song originated in England, as did the setting, America took its cues from its former colonial master and followed suit, instituting the most rudimentary and harsh forms of social services.  The main provisions for the poor were poorhouses and what was termed ‘outdoor relief’.

Poorhouses were funded and run by local governments (the federal government on more than one occasion in the century turned its nose up at providing direct support citing the lack of provisions within the Constitution) and were initially seen as a cheap way to deal with the indigent and the disabled, whilst a work requirement would ensure that the merely lazy would seek to avoid them. In short time they became dumping houses for anyone in dire straits who had no one to care for them. The severe lack of funding and care provided led to appallingly unsanitary conditions which inevitably caused outbreaks of diseases and the untimely deaths of scores of men, women and children. If those factors did not catch the eye of the local government officials gross mismanagement and corruption helped them to realize that it was actually financially advantageous to provide support in the community.

Outdoor relief was seen as the more benign method of providing support, and indeed it was, as the ‘worthy poor’ (those who were poor through no fault of their own, such as orphans and those with disabilities) were given the absolute basics to survive in the community. There was still opposition to such ‘handouts’ and some felt that it undermined the sense of well-being that one would get from making charitable contributions! Again, with no federal support the level of contributions varied greatly from area to area. This lead to those seeking assistance moving to the more supportive locales, and was countered by regulations establishing the need for beneficiaries to verify residency in a given community.

As industrialization grew in the latter part of the 1800s so people flocked to the cities. There it became clearer that support would need to be provided in greater numbers. Communities were able to coalesce and begin to provide more organized and equitable support. Eventually even the federal government joined in as America faced the Great Depression in the 1930s.