Long before subsidized housing, food stamps and Medicaid, early American settlers implemented their own forms of public assistance and policy regarding the poor, including taxation, auctioning off the destitute and building government-run poorhouses.

The Pilgrims and colonists may have envisioned the “New World” as a land of endless opportunity, but, as in England, the poor, sick and unemployed were also prevalent in America. And so they soon looked to the Elizabethan Poor Law Act of 1601 as a guide to handling the needy in their new homeland.

Elizabethan Poor Laws

Widespread unemployment, famine, natural disasters and other factors led to an increasing number of destitute people in England during the Elizabethan era. And with rapidly growing concerns that poverty would lead to crime, protests, disease and more, national legislation was enacted in 1601 to provide relief for the poor.

“New social arrangements were required to mitigate these hardships, to reduce uncertainty, and to stabilize community life,” writes Walter I. Trattner in his book From Poor Law to Welfare State. “It was in this context that the modern institution of social welfare emerged.”

The Poor Law Act, which remained largely intact for nearly 250 years, declared the government responsible for aiding its poor citizens, who were separated into three categories: able-bodied, “impotent” (the blind, elderly, disabled, etc.) and children. “It further conceded that there were helpless or needy people who not only deserved such assistance but who had a legal right to it,” according to Trattner.

Local church leaders or other appointees were charged with overseeing the relief and a mandatory tax rate system was installed, with failure to contribute resulting in jail time. But the act also stated that vagrants who refused employment faced prison, whipping, branding stoning or death. Additionally, a ban against begging was enforced and poorhouses were opened.

Bringing the Poor Laws to the Colonies

It quickly became clear that poverty was not restricted to European borders. By the mid-17th century, on American shores, Trattner writes, “so many indigent colonists were about–idlers, misfits, tramps, criminals, widows, the sick, and so on … that their care had to become a community function and responsibility.”

Pulling from the Poor Laws Act, colonists soon initiated local poverty relief taxes, and differentiations were made between the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor, leaving it up to town leaders to choose who would receive help and in what form.

“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,” John E. Hansan writes in “Poor Relief in Early America.”

Two common forms of relief for the poor were the contract system, in which a farmer or homeowner agreed to care for a person based on a fixed price, and auctioning, where a person or family was assigned to the lowest bidder. The individual then put the poor person to work in exchange for reimbursement of what it cost to clothe and feed them. According to Hansan, the system “essentially legalized abusive behavior and near starvation existence.”

It was during this time that transiency laws were also introduced to keep strangers from moving from town to town to collect public funds. “The Rhode Island Assembly empowered town councils to expel all nonresident vagrants and indigents,” Trattner writes. “Those who returned after having been expelled were subject to heavy fines and severe whipping.”

The Rise of Poorhouses

Men sitting down to dinner in the poorhouse, 1840. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Men sitting down to dinner in the poorhouse, 1840. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As poverty rates continued to grow in the colonies, reformers looked to new options, especially alternatives to assistance in the form of money, food, clothing or goods, as a way to slow incurred costs and demands for aid, according to Michael B. Katz in his book In the Shadow of the Poorhouse.

Their answer? Poorhouses. Also called workhouses and almshouses, these institutions became a popular form of public aid and “were supposed to check the expense of pauperism through cheaper care and by deterring people applying for relief,” as well as even the tax burden between urbanites and those in rural areas and decrease vagrancy, according to Katz.

“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,” Hansan writes. “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.”

It didn’t take long for reports of inhumane poorhouse conditions to emerge: violence, filth, disease, starvation, abuse, death, corruption and more.

“Miserable, poorly managed, underfunded institutions, trapped by their own contradictions, poorhouses failed to meet any of the goals so confidently predicted by their sponsors,” Katz writes.

Eventually, poorhouses were phased out, as the Social Security Act was signed in 1935 and more public assistance was offered in response to the Great Depression