From Poor Relief to the Poorhouse: The Response to Poverty in Prince George’s County, Maryland, 1710-1770
Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 93, p. 393, 1998
78 Pages Posted: 24 May 2009
Date Written: May 19, 2009
In 1671, the Maryland legislature empowered county justices to levy a tax for support of the poor. Because the number of poor remained small during this period, providing them with annual pensions proved to be an efficient and economical means of meeting the needs of elderly and infirm residents who were unable to labor and achieve self-sufficiency. Furthermore, those public dependents who were particularly old or disabled and thus in need of assistance beyond what standard pensions could provide were placed in the homes of community members whom the county paid to act as caretakers.
Dramatic changes that developed in the early 1760s rapidly undermined the effectiveness of the traditional poor relief system. For one, a steady increase in the population of several counties forced the relief system to provide for more people. Even more significant was the tremendous growth in the number of pensioners who received relief for long periods of time. This trend made it necessary for county taxpayers to support a population of dependents who were increasing at a faster rate than the population as a whole.
At the same time the poor relief system was becoming more expensive to operate, broad social and economic changes were limiting opportunities for financial advancement and thus creating a class of landless vagrants who roamed the region looking for a means of survival. Unlike traditional recipients of public relief, vagrants were generally young able-bodied males whom the public did not consider worthy of assistance. As a result, many counties began to petition the legislature for the right to construct poorhouses that could confine and control beggars and also provide a more economical means of caring for public dependents.
In this study, I argue that the transition from outdoor relief to the poorhouse encouraged new attitudes toward the poor. While the poor were once viewed as pitiable people worthy of public support, county residents came to view the poor as shameful and burdensome people who needed to be separated from society. The once stark distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor was largely eliminated.
Keywords: poor relief, poverty, poorhouse, colonial
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