Responses to Poverty in America’s Cities: A History

(Notes from Improving Poor People: The Welfare State, The “Underclass,” and Urban Schools as History (1995) by Michael Katz)

18th- Early 19th Century (1750-1800)

The America colonies inherited from England its traditional approaches to dealing with the problem of poverty. There the local community shouldered the responsibility of caring for the indigent and homeless. The poor were separated into two categories: the deserving poor (widows with children, the disabled) and the undeserving poor (shirkers, transients, drunks). Outdoor relief (a cash handout) was the primary method of providing care. This charitable relief for the needy was administered by local church parishes through the provisions of the Poor Law. To qualify for financial assistance, the poor were required to prove their right to ‘settlement’ in a particular area. This might include being born, married or having served and completed an apprenticeship in the local community. 'Transients' deemed to be without settlement rights were often ‘passed’ on to their home parishes in order to avoid any unnecessary costs. (See Poor Relief in Early America)

The Poorhouse Era (1800-90)

During the nineteenth century social thinkers, influenced by enlightened theories, came to believe that there had to be a better method of rehabilitating the poor than just handing out cash. Though the vast majority of people claiming relief in the nineteenth century were needy through no fault of their own, certain sections of society asserted that poverty was caused by the bad habits of the poor: their preference for drinking and gambling, for example, or their own simple laziness. To reduce the rising cost of poor relief, some people argued that the act of receiving charity itself should be made less attractive and hence less likely to be sought after. 

Poorhouses were created with public funding (but administered by private companies) and given the charge of re-programming the poor through deterrence and instruction. These institutions were intended to become self supporting institutions, but they quickly degenerated into hell-holes into which old people without money got tossed. Outdoor relief persisted, despite general opposition, as a tool of political patronage and as the only effective means of relief in times of economic crisis. (See Poor Relief and the Almshouse)

The ‘Golden Age’ of Voluntarism (1890-1900)

In reaction to the failure of the Poorhouses to make a dent in the problem of poverty, the wealthy assumed voluntary responsibility for managing charity cases. During the hey-day of Social Darwinism, the rich believed that they could no longer ignore the terrible contagion of incivility and debauchery gradually seeping beyond the confines of the inner city. Society’s new solution to the problems of poverty was to create privately financed voluntary associations whose members would ‘civilize’ the poor. ‘Friendly visitors’ provided good examples of appropriate public behavior for the poor. Settlement houses were founded in city slums to provide basic social services and educational opportunities. These private agencies possessed the quasi- legal power to intervene in the family lives of the poor. Children were often removed from unfit parents and placed in foster care. (See Jane Adam's Hull House and the Settlement House movement)

The Progressive Era (1900-1914)

The efforts of private agencies were overwhelmed by the onset of two severe economic depressions during the 1890’s. (This was the era of William Jennings Bryan and the Populist movement against the gold standard.) During the following decade new confidence in the ability of public agencies to address social problems took hold. “The Child Saver Movement” lobbied Congress to pass laws banning child labor, to reform public schools, and provide basic health services and 'outdoor relief' to deserving mothers. Big city governments also organized departments devoted to city services led by experts in the burgeoning field of social science. When Republican Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901 (after the assassination of William McKinley), he used the public outrage generated by muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker to push legislation to curb monopolies and trusts (like the Standard Oil Co.), to prevent poor hygiene in the food industry, and to end corruption in machine politics. Reforms passed included child labor laws, mandatory public education, establishing parks in city centers, enforcing anti-trust laws, and regulating the food industry. (See Progressivism Projects)

The Age of Welfare Capitalism (1919-1929)

Responding to a booming economy and high demand for labor in America after World War One, large corporations countered the threat of the international socialist movement  (and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia) by providing basic benefits to their workers: homeowner loans, retirement pensions, workman’s compensation for on the job injuries, stock purchasing plans, and the like. By doing so, large corporations hoped to stabilize the domestic labor market and to blunt the impact of strikes. (See Welfare Capitalism)

The Great Depression (1929-1940)

The Great Depression overwhelmed all of society’s efforts to address the problems of poverty. Business collapses and unemployment extended deep into the middle class. State, local, private, corporate and union resources were quickly overwhelmed, and the promised economic recovery did not come quickly. Only the Federal Government had the resources and the power to act. (See The Great Depression: American Social Policy)


Michael Katz’s set of variables affecting ideological positions in the continuing debate on social policies which address poverty:

Does intervention hurt by creating dependency or help by shaping middle class behaviors?

  • individual responsibility vs. structural forces
  • the dysfunctional family’s role in reproducing social pathology
  • the neighborhood environment’s role in conditioning individual responses
  • the culture’s role (group attitudes, values, and behaviors) in perpetuating poverty
  • the capacity of public or private institutions to counteract these forces