Jesus announced, “The poor you will always have with you,” to his disciples some two-thousand years ago and if the past twenty centuries have been any indicator, his words have proven to be true.
Poverty has always been around, more so in certain times and places than others, and the mountains of Appalachia have been no exception.
In an era before food stamps and housing assistance, destitute families faced a far different pathway than they might today.
In the early years of American history, local churches, relief groups and families took a far more active role in assisting the poor; however, when these groups could not meet the needs of impoverished citizens the local government was often required to step in. Towns would often elect a reluctant individual to the non-paying position of poor master. The poor master would be given an annual budget of tax money and his duties would be to validate those who applied for public relief and issue funds to truly needy individuals.
Few people sought this job, as it often carried with it great risks — those rejected from receiving public assistance often held grudges and the number of poor masters murdered are too numerous to accurately determine.
Though the office of poor master largely disappeared in the 1800s, some areas maintained the office well into the 1940s when it was replaced by the current welfare system.
In some areas of the country, families that could not support themselves would be auctioned off for a specific period of time. In exchange for a year’s work, a bidder would cover their expenses, feed and clothe them as well as provide housing and healthcare.
“The welfare of the paupers depended almost entirely upon the kindness and fairness of the bidder. If he was motivated only by a desire to make the maximum profit off the ‘use’ of the pauper, then concern for ‘the bottom line’ might result in the pauper being denied adequate food, or safe and comfortable shelter, or even necessary medical treatment. And there often was very little recourse for protection against abuse,” writes Poor House Farm Story.
During the 1800s, many communities discovered that it was more cost effective to simply provide a single place for poor families to reside and work than to support multiple families scattered across the entire county.
Out of this discovery, poor houses were developed, being built adjacent to a large farm where destitute families could work to raise their own food, thus making the houses more self-sufficient and relying less on local tax funds.
Often elderly, mentally handicapped and disabled people lived and worked on these poor farms, which were run mainly by county and town governments.
Far from being joyous places for families to catch their breath and step back onto their feet, many historic documents reveal these places to be more like a debtor’s prison than a charitable home.
Helen Keller’s famed teacher, Annie Sullivan, spent some of her childhood at a poor farm. She would later look back on the government run poor farm by describing it as “a crime against childhood.”
Conditions at Massachusetts’ poorhouse were said to be the worst, and “residents milled about like forgotten animals.” Children slept together on iron cots in a gigantic dormitory, infested with rats which ran up and down the spaces between beds.
In addition to being physically terrible places, living at a poor farm also exposed the individual to a stigma and shame, as society viewed those who were unable to support themselves as being the lowest of lows.
These farms continued well into the early-1900s until the Social Security Act took effect in 1935 and by 1950s nearly all poor farms had disappeared completely from the countryside.
During their prime, poor farms produced a variety of produce, grain, and livestock, which the residents would all consume. Residents were expected to provide labor to the extent that their health would allow, both in the fields, in providing housekeeping and care for other residents. Rules were strict and accommodations minimal.
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