Poverty and Social Work

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From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America- Walter I. Trattner

Chapter 1: The Background

The chapter traces the origin of welfare practices and caring for the needy from primitive times to the Elizabethan Poor Laws. References include Hammurabi, a Babylonian ruler who included protection of the vulnerable a part of his code in 2000 BC and the ancient Greeks and Romans (including Aristotle, 384-322 BC) who considered giving to charity a virtue.

Perhaps more important to American welfare, were ancient Jewish doctrines which established that giving and receiving were duties. Those who could give were obliged to do so, while those who were in need were obliged to accept help. The Talumd codified these tenants, and later, the Decretum, established similar laws and traditions among Christians. Neither the Talmud nor the Decretum considered poverty a crime. Mutual aid was sufficient to meet the needs of the poor in ancient times.

Feudalism also provided social insurance, since feudal lords provided for the needs of serfs. During the Middle Ages, hospitals were important centers to poor relief, and their practices extended far beyond providing assistance to the ill. The church was the most important source of aid administration during medieval times. The church was a public institution and instituted a compulsory tax.

The dissolution of feudalism and the transition to a capital and industrial-based economy resulted in greater social disorder and job uncertainty. The introduction and gradual replacement of earlier forms of work with wage labor created unemployment and made sustenance dependent upon the market. When combined with factors such as the bubonic plague of 1348-1349 and the Protestant Reformation of 1536, which dissolved the church and left those previously cared for by the church to fend for themselves, the transition to a market economy resulted in social and economic upheaval. By the mid-14th century, the state had to intervene in social problems. A series of statutes for dealing with the poor and unemployed were passed by Parliament:

- 1349 Statute of Laborers
- 1531 statute calling for severe punishment of able-bodied beggars - 1536 Henrician Poor Law
- 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law

Though widely cited as the most important law in poverty relief, the Poor Law of 1601 merely brought together a series of legislative measures dating back to 1349. It provided the basis for poor laws in the original 13 American colonies and the subsequent states.

Chapter 2: Colonial America

Due to an abundance of resources and a sparse population, destitution was not nearly as prevalent in colonial America as it was in England. However, the Parliamentary policy of sending beggars, convicts, vagrants, etc did not help the situation of new immigrants. Eventually colonies had to deal with the poor and infirm- this was especially true by the mid-17th century when increases in the population and its diversity made poverty equally more complex.

Isolation in new settlements led to a strong sense of community solidarity and likewise the sense that caring for the poor was a local obligation. Many drew upon religious principles and understood economic and social hierarchies as divinely determined. The existence of poor people gave the wealthy the opportunity to do good. The poor, for their part, had the right to receive aid. Giving and receiving aid bonded the classes together in the common human experience. Many of the specific provisions of the Elizabethan poor law of 1601 were carried over into colonial poor law, including the pattern of compulsory taxation. In some cases the town was responsible for collecting taxes and administering aid. In other cases, the parish was responsible.

Common methods of caring for the poor included:

-each family cared for a destitute person for part of the year -auctioning the poor to families who offered the lowest bidder -tax abatement...
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