POVERTY vs. THE AMERICAN DREAM:
A Clash of Reality on the Frontier
(or How Poor Relief was Different in the West)

 

by Linda M. Crannell

 (aka  =The Poorhouse Lady)

PHS Commentary # 2

©2003

5/16/2003

 

 

Anyone
who is willing to work hard
can “make it!”

          (be a financial success)

 

photograph by Dorothea Lange
courtesy of the Library of Congress
Upper Left:  Depression Era photograph taken in the West
 
Any serious review of the history of the American Frontier must take into consideration "The American Dream".  For there simply would be no frontiers without dreams!  Dreams are what motivate people to push out beyond the bounds of the familiar to risk the resulting dangers and hardships. If the prospect of improving one's fortune on the frontier did not seem highly likely -- almost guaranteed -- no one would volunteer to migrate .  "Don't Rain On My Parade" could well have been the anthem heard for background music as tens of thousands followed Horace Greeley's advice and trekked West.

While it may be somewhat true (how logical is that?) that anyone who is willing to work hard can make it in America ... it is certainly true that not everyone who is willing to work hard does make it! That notion that anyone who works hard will be successful is The American Dream -- and it is a great one!  But when we forget that the dream is just that, a dream, and not a statistical reality, we get ourselves in deep trouble. And that trouble becomes evident (in one of its manifestations)  as we look at the way poverty was treated along our westward moving frontier. 

To do this thoroughly we need to remember that the American frontier started as the east coast!  If we choose a point west of the Mississippi in the mid 1800s to start reviewing the influence of the frontier, we may miss the point altogether.  Our earliest efforts to provide relief for the poor occurred in the colonies and included "warning out" paupers (as described in the book "Unwelcome Americans"), cruelly abusive practices of "dumping" paupers in other communities to avoid caring for them (as recounted in the 1823 Yates Report for Albany County NY -- which we have highlighted in yellow; and in our commentary), and then the practices of "auctioning off" the poor, or "contracting" for their care, and the provision of  "outdoor relief" by "overseers of the poor"  (all of which we have summarized on our History page). The systematic adoption of the institution of the poorhouse as a substitute for such practices began in the 1820s in the East. 

So ... How did the western states deal with poor relief  ?
(Here we need to look also at what they did not do.)

We might have expected that the western states created after the 1830s would have established poorhouses and/or the more humane aspects of "outdoor relief" -- but most of them did neither. While "warning out" paupers, and the practice of  indentured servitude, as well as the auctioning off of the care of specific paupers or pauper families  had fallen into permanent disrepute and were no longer utilized -- the earlier practice of auctioning (to the lowest bidder) the contract for the care of the paupers in a community persisted for a very long time along the western frontier.  

While it could be argued that such arrangements were more appropriate for sparsely settled communities (just as they had seemed more appropriate in the East at an earlier time); the difference in attitude becomes more obvious when we examine the distinctive characteristics of poorhouses (and other poor relief practices) that were eventually established in the West. 

In the East the official who dealt with the requests of poor people for relief was a specialist. (In NY they were called "Overseers of the Poor" while other similar terms were used throughout the East.) But in Texas, as in many other western states, dealing with the poor was merely an added responsibility for such officials as "county commissioners".  

In the East, by the 1870s most states had established a State Board of Charities.  These boards were an attempt to share information to arrive at some common standards for poor relief policies and record keeping.  In the absence of such boards, local poor relief was carried out very inconsistently and according to the vagaries of local popular opinion about whether poor people were worthy or unworthy of compassion.  Most western states had no such boards. (The exceptions were only California, Oregon, and Colorado.)

When western states finally did decide that it was more cost effective to house paupers in some publicly owned house -- rather than paying private citizens to provide room and board -- those "poorhouses" differed from the poorhouses of the East (which had been specifically designed for that purpose and were considered important civic buildings). Instead, communities often rented or purchased a farm house and offered up for bid (often, again, in auction to the lowest bidder) the opportunity for someone to manage the poorhouse in return for a small payment from the county as well as any profits they were able to make off the labor of those indigents who were able to work.

As we have reported elsewhere, sometimes those western poorhouses were run with compassion. (See, for example, the fond  memories of someone whose family managed a poorhouse in Kansas, as well as the recollections of  someone else who grew up in the family which managed one in North Dakota.)

But, as we have written elsewhere,  when the laws and  practices utilized in the relief of the poor have the potential for great injustice ... and the avoidance of that is dependent upon the kindness of individuals who must exhibit great courage in mitigating the harsh intent of the law ... sometimes the outcome is just ... but sometimes it is not!  A while back I assigned myself the unpleasant task of reading an astonishing book (very well documented) about which I wrote a review.  The book "Evil Obsession: The Annie Cook Story" is a biography of the woman to whom the contract was given for the care of the poor of Lincoln County, Nebraska from 1923 until 1934.  Her abuse (allegedly apparently including murders) of the people in her charge probably represents the far extreme along the continuum of types of treatment which occurred under the various "contract" systems.

But almost everywhere along this continuum of the treatment of the poor ... especially in the West ... we see an unstated assumption -- which is perhaps most blatant in Texas -- that poverty itself is somehow a crime!  In Texas (and some other western states) the poorhouse was not only not a specially designed and designated building -- but it was a multi-purpose building which was a combination JAIL & POORHOUSE!  How subtle is that!?  Reading about these combination institutions is quite revealing.  Although, nowhere in America was the poorhouse actually a debtors prison ... the practice of housing "paupers" with "criminals" is a rather extreme example of the very punitive way in which poor relief was provided.

If poverty was common on the frontier ...
why didn't frontier people join together to advocate 
for better treatment when anyone fell on hard times?

Ah, there's the rub!  Setting up a formal, specialized, closely monitored system of poor relief would have required giving up denial ... and admitting that poverty was a significant problem ... even on the frontier.  And that would have put the lie to the assumption that the realization of  The American Dream was guaranteed. That would have been depressing ... emotionally as well as economically. And it might have curbed the flow of dreamers into the new territory. [Never forget, no matter how many went broke on the frontier, there were a powerful few who always made money off the arrival of the newcomers.] 

Denial just may be the greatest (and most long-lasting) dis-ease in our culture; and it is undoubtedly a major factor behind our never having been able to effectively and permanently eliminate the huge (and growing) gulf between the "rich" and the "poor".  For one thing, it is almost "un-American" to even admit to being anything less than "middle class" -- so it is (and always has been) hard to rally a constituency of the poor to effect social policy to reduce economic inequities.

Virtually every survey done recently has indicated that about 90% of the American population considers itself to be in the middle class.  Do the math!  (That reflects Garrison Keeler's town motto for Lake Wobegone -- "where all the men are strong, and all the women are good-looking, and all the children are above average!")

But it's even worse than that.  In an op-ed piece titled The Triumph Of Hope Over Self-Interest
published in The New York Times on January 12, 2003,  David Brooks
opens by asking, "Why don't people vote their own self-interest?"  He answers this question by citing a 2000 Time magazine poll in which about 40 percent of respondents either thought they were among the richest one percent of Americans or expected to be in that group sooner or later. This, to Brooks, is evidence that "people vote their aspirations" rather than their self-interest.

With that in mind, it becomes less difficult to understand why, in Texas and throughout the frontier, there seems to have been great reluctance to acknowledge that "the poor we have with us always."  Instead, poverty was ... once again (as it had been earlier ... in the East ... when the East was itself a frontier) ... treated as though it was an aberration, a result of fault on the part of the poor.

So poor relief was given grudgingly and informally and without much regulation or record keeping.
And those who did not fulfill this American Dream were pretty much ignored … by those who
did “make it!”

As an amateur genealogist pursuing a better understanding of local history, I have come to realize that there were "prerequisites" to succeeding on the frontier.  Almost everyone who did succeed was strong and healthy and lucky enough to avoid serious injury or disease.  But they were also very likely to have joined or brought with them a very crucial "support system".   

They usually brought with them (or met up with) brothers or uncles or in-laws to help with the physical labors. They usually had mothers, wives, sisters and daughters who could sometimes “specialize” in domestic labor. And this extended family could “carry” someone who fell ill or was injured. Those who came without such a system were much more likely to fail.  (But most of them did not realize this necessity in advance.)

And finally, it never hurt to have connections!  It helped to know which land was up for sale and when and how.  It helped to know which land was good and which was fairly priced.  It helped to know someone who would vouch for you to get credit, etc. etc. etc.  Not everybody had that help.

"Privilege" (in socio/political debates, at any rate) usually raises an image of something very sleazy or illegal (akin to "insider trading") that gives an unfair advantage.  But in some sense we are all privileged.  Privilege may just be another word for "blessings" ... and we have those. 

Privilege is usually transparent to those who have it! (When Marie Antoinette responded to the plight of the poor -- who had no bread -- with "Let them eat cake!" she may simply have been unaware that there actually were households in which there could not be found both bread and cake.) And that often means that fortunate folks assume everyone else is equally blessed.  So it becomes easy to judge those who fail as having been somehow at fault ... lazy, intemperate, etc.

Where that attitude prevails, good people often fail to concern themselves with the effectiveness or even the humaneness of poor relief.  That was often the case along the frontier. 

It is often still the case ... everywhere in our culture.

 
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