Early American poor lawquite closely reflected English poor law. There were four general principles upon which most American poor law was built. First, poor relief was a public responsibility. Second, the relief should be administered at the local level. Third, anyone with relatives capable of caring for them could be denied relief. Fourth, paupers who were able to work should be forced to work. This included children.
States used various methods to provide poor relief. Some sold poor people to the lowest bidder. The winning bidder was responsible for the care of the person and had total control of the pauper.
A variation of the auction was a contract system where towns or counties paid individuals to provide for care of the poor. This allowed the local government some oversight of the care provided.
Outdoor relief was another often used option. Towns or counties would provide money to individuals who came before elected officials to plead for assistance, if the person was deemed to be worthy of assistance. If local officials thought someone capable of working or getting assistance from family, they would often refuse to help. This system was time consuming and expensive.
As poor relief developed, most states turned to the poorhouse. In rural states they were called poorfarms. Poorhouses were built in large cities as early as the American Colonial period.
By the late 1800s, there were thousands of poorhouses across the country. In Minnesota, 63 of the 87 counties operated a poorfarm at some time between the 1850s and 1950s.
It was thought poorhouses would be a more efficient way of caring for the poor, thus reducing cost for local government. It was also anticipated that by forcing people to go to a less than pleasant place if they wanted public assistance, many poor could be discouraged from seeking help.
In some states, including Minnesota, thousands of poor people who were not U.S. citizens were deported when they asked for public assistance. (See some examples.)
In rural states like Minnesota and Iowa, county officials purchased large tracts of land and established farms in hopes of using pauper labor to produce crops. It soon became apparent they would not be profitable. A 1925 federal report found much of the land lying idle.
Most of the people at poorfarms were not able to work, because of physical or mental disability. Some did help out at poorfarms, caring for animals, cutting wood or working in the kitchen. Others picked up odd jobs in local communities.
"In general, most of the men were a hard lot with habits characteristic of their type. Occasionally some would indulge in too many spirits and the sheriff would have to take them home, otherwise they walked both ways. The only time they were assured of a ride was election day, when the politicians would pick them up and take them home again after voting." (Source: History of Itasca county poorfarm, by Geo. Prescott.)
"The hopes of the Republic cannot forever tolerate either undeserved poverty or self-serving wealth. We know that we still have far to go; that we must more greatly build the security and the opportunity and the knowledge of every citizen, in the measure justified by the resources and the capacity of the land. But it is not enough to achieve these purposes alone. It is not enough to clothe and feed the body of this Nation, and instruct and inform its mind. For there is also the spirit. And of the three, the greatest is the spirit. "
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 1941
Poorhouses were also designed to change the behavior and character of inmates. This idea was based on the classification of poor as "worthy" and "unworthy." Unworthy poor were considered to have character flaws, which were often listed as the reason they were in the poorhouse.
"No state can sustain an adequate system for the care of its dependents, defectives, and delinquents which does not recognize the necessity of prevention in the operation of every part of the system. The really modern system rests on the recognition that those unfortunate classes are the products of conditions which may be known and largely removed by the exercise of intelligence and vigilance. It is certain that all of those classes might be greatly lessened and consequent misery and expense largely reduced thru the use of adequate methods, preventive agencies, and checking devices.
"Weak in will as the defectives are, and possessed of all the sexual desires, reproduction, not only, but reproduction of unusual lavishness is certain to follow on leaving them to mix freely in the population at large." (Source: 1913 article published by University of North Dakota Sociologist John Gillette.)
Men and women often shared poorhouse facilities, and a lack of supervision led to many illegitimate births. After an 1884 visit to Ottertail County, Hastings Hart, Minnesota's first secretary of the Board of Corrections and Charities wrote to the county board as follows, "There is among the inmates a simple-minded girl who has had one child; there may be a repetition of this at your poorhouse; you cannot allow such a state of affairs. It costs $150 per year to support a pauper child, and $150 is interest on a pretty large sum of money."
Orphans and dependent children lived in poorhouses until the late 1800s. Minnesota was one of the rural states that received orphan children from East Coast cities in the late 1800s. Many of these children were adopted, some as cheap labor for farmers. An unknown number ended up in poorhouses.
In 1874, the Minnesota Legislature established the State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children in Owatonna. This largely ended the practice of sending children to poorfarms.
Mental illness was common among poorhouse residents, as was alcoholism. A 1925 reportcriticized states for allowing "the insane and intelligent poor people to mingle freely." In the 1870s, Minnesota opened its first hospitals for the insane, later known as State Hospitals and then Regional Treatment Centers.
By the early 1900s, mostly elderly people lived in poorhouses. Poorhouse populations peaked about 1920. In many places, early records are sketchy, others kept precise records of all inmates.
The level of care these people received depended largely on the moral and social conscience of the community where the poorhouse was located.
"The old county house was in such disreputable condition that no one ever visited it, and Dickens is the only one who could have done justice to the conditions we found there," lamented a North Dakota sociologist in 1913. (Source: Notes of J.M. Gillette)
The 1925 report highlighted deplorable conditions in poorhouses across the country, but many who lived in poorhouses received compassionate - if perhaps inadequate - care.
Some of the people who worked in Minnesota poorhouses from the 1930s to the 1960s remember trying to care for people who were often mentally ill, chemically dependent or physically disabled. They could offer little more than food, shelter and compassion. (Read their stories.)