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.

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