1800s Social Work

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Nineteenth century America was a time of urbanization, industrialization, immigration, overcrowding and as a result, poverty. During this time, social policy was relatively non-existent and financial assistance was the sole responsibility of private or public charities. Women did not have rights or economic independence, as they were typically considered the property of their husbands. During this time, a woman with three children who was abandoned by her husband would receive little or no financial assistance; she may fall under the category of the “unworthy” poor, as she was not a widow, elderly or physically disabled. The assistance of this women may have changed from the early to late nineteenth century, as feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton began to advocate for social reform, and others such as Jane Adams became concerned with the social well being of women. From the beginning to late 1800’s some social reform took place and the federal government began to implement various programs and institutions to assist in the financial well being of the poor. Early 1800’s

During the early 1800’s, there weren’t any significant federal programs aimed at assisting the poor. Financial aid was allocated as the responsibility of the local community, local government, or religious charity. People were expected to work and take care of their families unless they were elderly, sick or widowed; these were labeled the “worthy” poor in need of assistance. Women were the “property” if their husbands and typically performed work inside of the home to contribute to the financial well being of the family. They were responsible for the production of cloth, clothing and shoes. Additionally, there weren’t any limitations on the working hours, wages or conditions for women and children. During this time, a mother of three abandoned by her husband would have received little or no assistance. She would not fall under the classification of the “worthy” poor, as she was not a widow, elderly or sick. It is possible that her or her children would work in mills under dangerous conditions and long hours, if her children were over the age of three; child labor was prevalent during this time period. If a white woman was unable to financially support her children, they may become apprentices to families who can support them. This served as an educational opportunity for children to learn a trade. Collectively, an able bodied poor person, such as an abandoned woman was deemed “lazy and sinful” and may have been sent to a workhouse through enforced labor.

As the nineteenth century progressed, industrialization spurred the continued migration to urban cities in search of training and work; this led to overcrowding and poverty. Poverty was primarily blamed on the individual. If a woman with three children needed assistance, any community organizations of the time would assume that the problem was intra-psychic and there was a moral deficiency. To address this concern, middle class reformers felt that the betterment of cities could be achieved through moral reconstitution of individuals and families. Several “moral building” organizations were created; the New York Association for Improving the conditions of the Poor was established in 1843. Male volunteers would offer religious teachings, work to get the poor to abstain from alcohol, become more self-disciplined and acquire the Protestant Work Ethic. As a result, a woman abandoned by her husband would receive moral teachings in her home rather than any financial assistance. Mid 1800’s

Towards the 1840’s, advocates of social reform began to voice their concerns regarding poverty. Dorothea Dix spoke of the need for separate facilities for adult offenders, juveniles and the mentally ill. She also suggested that the Federal government be responsible for the mentally ill and provide them with treatment through hospitalization. In 1845, the first state asylum for the mentally...
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