The Colonial Period


Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601:

Provided for “…public responsibility for relief of the poor who could not work, and work for the able-bodied.”


·         Local responsibility—to towns and cities

·         Family responsibility—legal obligation of support that adults had for their children/grands and for aged parents

·         Residency requirements

o   designated period of residence requirement in order to receive assistance

o   form of controlling and containing the poor—limited the poors mobility

o   People could be returned to their place of legal residence if complaints were made

Categorized the Poor

·         Worthy: ill, disabled, elderly, orphans (“those that were in need do to no fault of their own”)

o   Cash relief in their own homes or in the homes of neighbors (in-door relief)

o   Widowed women and their children

·         Unworthy: able-bodied individuals that did not work

Colonial America

Agricultural society

Family was “central force to maintaining economic, social, and political stability.” Patriarchal hierarchy, everyone was responsible to contribute

Women, children and home manufacturing were integral to the economic well-being.  During 18th century improved technology expanded commercial activities and specifically impacted home manufacturing. Spinning wheel and after 1765 the spinning jenny allowed for spinning multiple yarns simultaneously.

Photo credit

1750- spinning schools opened for female children

1751- Society for Encouraging Industry & Employing the Poor founded

“Protestant Work Ethic” = home & family charity –> salvation of the rich not concern for the poor

-when family is in trouble they save the potential productive members which created farming out, indenture and apprenticeship.

-Extensive expectation of family responsibility for their dependants.  If families could not take care of children, children were apprenticed out in order to become useful and worthy.

– poor families were “dangerous, both economically and morally…..therefore, provided the binding of children as apprentices for “better educating of youth in honest and profitable trades and manufactures, as also to a avoyd sloath and idleness wherewith such young children are easily corrupted” and required that in addition to a trade, children learn to “read and understand the principles of religion…”These were preventative measures designed to protect children from the contagion of parental failures.”
-Apprenticeship and indenture for children. Indenture contracting and farming out for poor able bodied adults.

-First almshouse (poor house) was built in 1657 in Rensselaerswyck, NY. Population growth, mobility of labor spurred the expansion and use of work houses and almshouses.

Indoor relief= care outside of the home (almshouses) and outdoor relief= cash assistance for those deserving to remain in their own home.

Poor laws = stigmatized the poor, and “resorting to public aid”, emphasized the responsibility of the family, and established the residency requirement and the screening and removing of migrants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *