WHAT KEEPS US FROM THE POORHOUSE ?
(THEN & NOW)

      
  

by Linda M. Crannell

 
PHS Commentary  
# 5

(The Poorhouse Lady)

12/23/2003

      
   

 

 

All that keeps us from
walking the lonely path
to the poorhouse

is the

"SOCIAL SAFETY NET"  

which was carefully constructed
 in the mid-19th century

...

and which is being 
systematically
dismantled

at the start of the 21st Century!!!

    

CHESTER COUNTY FARM
painting by Andrew Wyeth

prints offered for sale on-line at 

http://www.artprintcollection.com/html/andrew_wyeth_-_chester_county_.html

ASTONISHINGLY EASY TO FALL INTO POVERTY
During the 1800's
WHY????

It is no coincidence that a system of county poorhouses had to be instituted about the time of the Industrial Revolution -- at the start of the 19th century. The switch to a wage labor system  not only changed the way people earned a living, but it also transformed their entire way of living.  

One major change in lifestyle involved the fact that people (single individuals as well as families) became much more mobile. They traveled to find employment. This marked the beginning of the end of a long era during which entire extended families lived in the same communities over not only several decades but several generations.  The support of such extended families living as an integral part of such communities had long provided the "safety net" which carried people through "hard times."  That informal support was no longer readily available once people were living as "strangers among strangers."

So, more and more, as people fell upon hard times ( becoming widowed or orphaned, or simply growing old alone, or suffering the effects of illness or disability) or when the only wage earner was laid off or injured on the job, or when a family experienced the very common devastation of losing their home because of fire or natural disaster -- they had no alternative except to ask for public relief. As the "poor relief" rolls grew alarmingly large -- and expensive to the taxpayers -- governments began to respond by denying any form of "outdoor relief."  The only help offered was at the poorhouse.

The primary reason poverty led to the poorhouses established in the 1800s was simply this: THERE WAS NO SOCIAL SAFETY NET!  Poorhouse enrollments were gradually reduced as legislation during the last half of the century required that children and people who were mentally ill be provided with more appropriate facilities -- orphanages or foster homes and mental hospitals. However, the poorhouse remained the ultimate refuge for a vast number of people for almost 100 year.

 

 Let's Look at What We Did NOT Have During the 1800's

 

SOCIAL SAFETY NET -- HISTORY

CAUSES OF POVERTY 

HISTORY

"SAFETY NET"
PROTECTION

Protection
Prior
to 
1900's ???

 

ILLNESS

 
 prototype for modern
 health insurance 1929:
 Dallas Texas teachers
 contracted with a hospital 
                ---
 Medicare (elderly) 1965
 Medicaid   (poor)  1965
 CHIPS 
 
(Children's Health Ins.-- low income)

HEALTH INSURANCE

NO

private
i.e.
Blue Cross
Blue Shield

Medicaid Medicare
etc.

 

HANDICAP
PHYSICAL
MENTAL
EMOTIONAL

 Supplement Security Income
  Elderly & Disabled
1972 
...
The first disability policies 
offered by private companies  seem to have been 
made available no earlier than 
the last half of the 20th century

[We can't find much published information on this topic.]

DISABILITY INSURANCE
or
DISABILITY 
INCOME

NO  

private

Medicare
(SSI)

 

UNEMPLOYMENT

    introduced as part of 
    the 1935 Social Security Act

 UNEMPLOYMENT
COMPENSATION

 NO

  

LOSS OF HOME

 virtually not available for 
average private residences
until 20th century

HOMEOWNERS & FIRE INSURANCE

 available only to paying members of private fire departments

 FEMA 
1979

agency history &
history of previous disaster relief

FEMA
 Federal Emergency Management Agency

available only by ad hoc special legislation
---  
very fragmented 

 
RETIREMENT  Social Security Act -- 1935 SOCIAL SECURITY NO

private pensions
  

   
  
In 1910 there were only five companies
   in the US offering their industrial
   workers company-sponsored pensions.
   In the early decades of the 20th
   century, the percentage of workers 
   anticipating an employment-related 
    pension from their company or 
    union was only slightly more than
    2%.

 
 

ON-THE-JOB INJURY

(first established only for civilian employees of the federal government)
 1908 
[compensation payment]

WORKMEN’S COMPENSATION
INSURANCE

 NO

 

1970
[injury prevention]

OSHA
Occupation Safety & 
Health Act

NO

 

 

We did not see the elimination of poorhouses until the strongest strand in this social safety net was provided -- with the enactment of the Social Security Act in 1935. When we are asked whether it
seems possible that we may ever be sending people to poorhouses again ... we want to say no; but ...


Let's Look at What We ARE On the Way to Losing During the 2000's
 


SOCIAL SAFETY NET -- CURRENT STATUS

  CAUSES OF         "SAFETY NET"                                   CURRENT STATUS     
  
POVERTY              SOURCE of                                                      &
                                 PROTECTION                                 OUTLOOK  for FUTURE

 

ILLNESS

  Private Health Insurance

       Huge proportion of Americans
       no longer have any health insurance.
      
(census bureau estimates 43 million)
  •   rapid & huge increases in cost for premiums
  • fewer & fewer employers are offering insurance (and those who do are paying less 
    of the premium -- so employee costs are rising )

sources & further information

  Medicare (elderly) 

  • SEVERELY THREATENED
    by

  • underfunding

  • attempts to "privatize"

  • higher premiums & copayments

  • later ages for retirement eligibility

sources & further information

  Medicaid   (poor)  

 recently severely cut
because of shortfalls in state budgets

sources & further information
 

  CHIPS 
 
(Children's Health Ins.-- low income)

recently severely cut
because of shortfalls in state budgets

sources & further information

 

HANDICAP
PHYSICAL
MENTAL
EMOTIONAL

 

 Medicare  (SSI)
Supplement Security Income
  Elderly & Disabled

severe cuts in federal SSI funding
sources & further information

states that have been supplementing
federal SSI funds have
recently severely cut these funds
because of shortfalls in state budgets
example

private disability insurance

 becoming more & more expensive
and available from fewer sources

definitions of disability becoming
more and more narrow

   

UNEMPLOYMENT

 Unemployment Compensation

     Not available to the growing numbers of
     people who can only find contract work
     and are not salaried employees.
                       [
scroll to bottom of page]
   

   In March 2002 the unemployment rolls were
   so high that it was necessary to enact federal
   Temporary Extended Unemployment 
   Compensation legislation.  Despite the fact 
   that the current "recovery" of the economy has 
   been largely "jobless" ... this is scheduled to be 
   ended in the week that begins December 21, 
   2003.

                    sources & further information

 

LOSS 
OF 
HOME

 
 Private Fire Insurance

In many areas it is becoming impossible 
to obtain homeowners insurance
at any price. 

             sources & further information

  FEMA

 
On March 1, 2003, FEMA became part of the      
  
    
U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Adequacy of funding for domestic disasters
under such an arrangement
is questionable.

sources & further information

 

RETIREMENT

 Social Security Act -- 1935

privatization
sources & further information

private pensions


recently devastated by 
corporate fraud

i.e. Enron

IRAs


recently shown to be 
vulnerable to fraud
by mutual funds

sources & further information

 

ON-THE-JOB 
INJURY

WORKMEN’S COMPENSATION    
 1908 

     Not available to the growing numbers of
     people who can only find contract work
     and are not salaried employees.
 
                        [scroll to bottom of page]
 

OSHA
Occupation Safety & 
Health Act
1970

 

Currently under major attack!

sources & further information

  

 

There is a huge and rapidly growing category of people who are not able to benefit from many of these programs -- even if the programs survive the current threats.  While government spin doctors  proclaim the increase in opportunities for people to start their own businesses as the great benefit of American capitalism -- many in these statistics are simply people who can no longer find any salaried employment. We call these the ...
                                                     UNWILLING ENTREPRENEURS

Recently there has been increasing concern about "outsourcing" American companies moving jobs out of the country.  But a great deal of outsourcing is domestic.  Work is being done more and more by people who are not direct employees of these companies. They are doing "contract labor" ... working without the benefits or protections that are available only to salaried employees.  And they are doing so both overseas and here at home.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s there was a great moral outrage about "sweatshops" and people working for near-slave wages in their homes.  Working "piecework" for contractors who offer no unemployment compensation when contracts run out and whose excessive demands for more and more volume in production may lead to unsafe work practices is no less problematic when it is done on computers than when it is done on a sewing machine!  Yet there does not now seem to be as much outrage over such trends as there was a hundred years ago.  That may be because those who benefit financially (not the workers!) from such arrangements misrepresent them as a "growth in entrepreneurship" and hope we will view this as something homey like a "cottage industry."  It's not!

 

"KNEE-PANTS" AT FORTY-FIVE CENTS A DOZEN --
A LUDLOW STREET SWEATER'S SHOP

SEWING AND STARVING 
IN AN ELIZABETH STREET ATTIC


Photographs by Jacob A. Riis
from How The Other Half Lives (New York, 1890)
 

When we look at these trends ... 
and the dismantling or crippling of our "social safety net" ... 
it no longer seems impossible that sufficient people may fall through these gaps
that we may eventually see our leaders
looking again at some sort of poorhouse system as a "solution."

 

 

 Return to List of COMMENTARIES (with links)      Return to POORHOUSE STORY home page