Poor Houses (Almshouse) and Poor Law

"Almshouse or Poorhouse, institution for housing and feeding the poor at public expense."

Poor Laws

The English Poor Laws, a system set up by the government of England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, attempted to establish a clear public responsibility for care of the poor. Under these laws, government authorities divided the poor into two groups. The "deserving poor" were those deemed unable to work—primarily the disabled, blind, and elderly. The able-bodied unemployed were labeled the "undeserving poor." Those considered unable to work were generally eligible for cash or other forms of assistance in their homes, known as outdoor relief. Those who could work were provided with what amounted to public-service employment. Such government-funded work was known as indoor relief, because it was usually done inside large public facilities called workhouses.

The Poor Laws made local government the primary administrator of welfare. To keep welfare beneficiaries under the supervision of their providers, the laws also discouraged the migration of the poor among administrative regions, or parishes. From their inception, the Poor Laws generated controversy. Opponents of the laws argued that if the poor received public assistance, some of them might avoid work, not work hard enough, or not save any of their earnings.

Despite such criticism, some Poor Law administrators hoped they could prevent welfare dependency by making people work for benefits. In a major work initiative begun in the late 1700s, administrators assigned relief recipients to work at private farms and businesses. Public funds were used to supplement the wages of those assigned to this work requirement. This plan became known as the Speenhamland System, after the British parish in which it was pioneered.

In the late 1830s, many local governments also established workhouses, where the able-bodied poor worked when no private work was available. Workhouses were often made to be unpleasant places, so that people would seek even meagerly paid menial jobs before taking workhouse employment.

Poor Laws and Poor Houses in the US

The American colonists essentially imported the framework of the British Poor Laws. By the early 19th century, states required that counties or municipalities provide for the poor and needy. The local governments carried out this responsibility in one of four ways: by auctioning off the poor to bidders who could use them as workers; by contracting with wealthier families to take care of them, either as charitable acts or for pay or free labor; by placing the poor and needy in public institutions (workhouses); or by providing them with assistance in cash or goods.

Citizens and politicians publicly expressed their concerns about welfare from the country's beginnings. In the 1820s and 1830s, a reform movement swept many states. Local communities tried to replace all outdoor relief—the giving of cash and goods to the poor—with workhouses. These reforms were intended to rehabilitate the poor and replace frivolous welfare use with a work ethic.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the scientific charity reform movement emphasized counseling the poor to improve their social functioning. Reformers also encouraged independence through social casework. In this approach, caseworkers visited poor people regularly and instructed them in morality and a work ethic. Supporters of scientific charity opposed the idea of unconditional relief. In some parts of the country these reformers were able to temporarily halt distributions of cash relief almost entirely.

Welfare did not disappear, however. From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, the Congress of the United States sponsored various programs that expanded public provision for the poor. In 1862 Congress passed legislation for a Civil War Pension Program, which eventually made economic, disability, and old-age benefits available to all Civil War veterans and their families. Between 1911 and 1921, 40 states established mothers' pensions. In these programs, states offered income support to poor mothers, mostly widows, upholding the notion that motherhood was appropriate as a sole occupation.

Local Resources

In Somerset county, the Poor House was originally called the Somerset County Home. Later the home became known as the Somerset County State Hospital. It is now part of the State Prison. There is a pauper's cemetery on the property but it is off limits to visitors. (Information courtesy of Linda Marker).

The following census information from Somerset County is available for online:

More Information

Poor House History is an excellent website with records and much more online to assist researching in understanding this 19th Century county service.

(Source: "Welfare," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.)


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Last Revised: December 7, 2006

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