FROM POORHOUSE TO DATABASE
“You’re going to send me to the poorhouse!”
Most of us reference the poorhouse only reflexively today. But the poorhouse was once a very real and much feared institution. At their height, poorhouses appeared on postcards and in popular songs. Local societies scheduled tours for charity-minded citizens and common gawkers. Cities and towns across the country still include streets named for the poorhouses once sited on them. There are Poor Farm Roads in Bristol, Maine, and Natchez, Mississippi; County Home Roads in Marysville, Ohio, and Greenville, North Carolina; Poorhouse Roads in Winchester, Virginia, and San Mateo, California. Some have been renamed to obscure their past: Poor House Road in Virginia Beach is now called Prosperity Road.
The poorhouse in my hometown of Troy, New York, was built in 1821. While most of its residents were too ill, too old, or too young for physical labor, able-bodied inmates worked on a 152-acre farm and in a nearby stone quarry, earning the institution its name: the Rensselaer County House of Industry. John Van Ness Yates, charged by the state of New York with conducting a year-long inquiry into the “Relief and Settlement of the Poor” in 1824, used Troy’s example to argue that the state should build a poorhouse in every county. His plan succeeded: within a decade, 55 county poorhouses had been erected in New York.
Despite optimistic predictions that poorhouses would furnish relief “with economy and humanity,” the poorhouse was an institution that rightly inspired terror among poor and working-class people. In 1857, a legislative investigation found that the House of Industry confined the mentally ill to 4½-by-7-feet cells for as long as six months at a time. Because they had only straw to sleep on and no sanitary facilities, a mixture of straw and urine froze onto their bodies in the winter “and was removed only by thawing it off,” causing permanent disabilities.
“The general state of things described as existing at the Poor House, is bad, every way,” wrote the Troy Daily Whig in February 1857. “The contract system, by which the maintenance of the paupers is let out to the lowest bidder, is in a very great measure responsible.… The system itself is rotten through and through.” The county superintendent of the poor, Justin E. Gregory, won the contract for the House of Industry by promising to care for its paupers for $1 each per week. As part of the contract, he was granted unlimited use of their labor. The poorhouse farm produced $2,000 in revenue that year, selling vegetables grown by starving inmates.
In 1879, the New York Times reported on its front page that a “Poorhouse Ring” was selling the bodies of deceased residents of the House of Industry to county physicians for dissection. In 1885, an investigation into mismanagement uncovered the theft of $20,000 from the Rensselaer County poor department, forcing the resignation of Keeper of the Poorhouse Ira B. Ford. In 1896, his replacement, Calvin B. Dunham, committed suicide after his own financial improprieties were discovered.
In 1905, the New York State Board of Charities opened an investigation that uncovered rampant sexual abuse at the House of Industry. Nurse Ruth Schillinger testified that a male medical attendant, William Wilmot, regularly attempted to rape female patients. Inmates insisted that Mary Murphy, suffering from paralysis, had been assaulted by Wilmot. “They heard footsteps in the hall and they said it was Wilmot down there again,” Schillinger testified, “and I found the woman the next morning with her legs spread apart and she couldn’t move them herself because they were paralyzed.”1
In his defense, John Kittell, the keeper of the House of Industry and Wilmot’s boss, claimed that his management had saved the county “five to six thousand dollars per year” by reducing the cost of inmate care. Wilmot faced no charges; action to improve conditions was not taken until 1910. Troy’s poorhouse remained open until 1954.
While poorhouses have been physically demolished, their legacy remains alive and well in the automated decision-making systems that encage and entrap today’s poor. For all their high-tech polish, our modern systems of poverty management—automated decision-making, data mining, and predictive analytics—retain a remarkable kinship with the poorhouses of the past. Our new digital tools spring from punitive, moralistic views of poverty and create a system of high-tech containment and investigation. The digital poorhouse deters the poor from accessing public resources; polices their labor, spending, sexuality, and parenting; tries to predict their future behavior; and punishes and criminalizes those who do not comply with its dictates. In the process, it creates ever-finer moral distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, categorizations that rationalize our national failure to care for one another.
This chapter chronicles how we got here: how the brick-and-mortar poorhouse morphed into its data-based descendants. Our national journey from the county poorhouse of the nineteenth century to the digital poorhouse today reveals a remarkably durable debate between those who wish to eliminate and alleviate poverty and those who blame, imprison, and punish the poor.
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America’s first poorhouse was built in Boston in 1662, but it wasn’t until the 1820s that imprisoning the indigent in public institutions became the nation’s primary method of regulating poverty. The impetus was the catastrophic economic depression of 1819. After a period of extravagant financial speculation following the War of 1812, the Second Bank of the United States nearly collapsed. Businesses failed, agricultural prices dropped, wages fell as much as 80 percent, and property values plummeted. Half a million Americans were out of work—about a quarter of the free adult male population. But political commentators worried less about the suffering of the poor than they did about the rise of “pauperism,” or dependence on public benefits. Of particular concern was outdoor relief: food, fuel, medical care, clothing, and other basic necessities given to the poor outside of the confines of public institutions.
A number of states commissioned reports about the “pauper problem.” In Massachusetts, Josiah Quincy III, scion of a wealthy and influential Unitarian family, was appointed to the task. Quincy genuinely wanted to alleviate suffering, but he believed that poverty was a result of bad personal habits, not economic shocks. He resolved the contradiction by suggesting that there were two classes of paupers. The impotent poor, he wrote in 1821, were “wholly incapable of work, through old age, infancy, sickness or corporeal debility,” while the able poor were just shirking.2
For Quincy, the pauper problem was caused by outdoor relief itself: aid was distributed without distinguishing between the impotent and the able. He suspected that indiscriminate giving destroyed the industry and thriftiness of the “labouring class of society” and created a permanently dependent class of paupers. His solution was to deny “all supply from public provision, except on condition of admission into the public institution [of the poorhouse].”3
Copyright © 2018 by Virginia Eubanks