The Poorhouse

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The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution

January 17, 2005
200 pages
Rowman-Littlefield Publishers
ISBN-10: 0-7425-2945-2
ISBN-13: 978-0-7425-2945-8

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Many of us grew up hearing our parents exclaim ‘you are driving me to the poorhouse!‘ or remember the card in the ‘Monopoly‘ game which says ‘Go to the Poorhouse! Lose a Turn!‘ Yet most Americans know little or nothing of this institution that existed under a variety of names for approximately three hundred years of American history. Surprisingly these institutions variously named poorhouses, poor farms, sometimes almshouses or workhouses, have received rather scant academic treatment, as well, though tens of millions of poor people were confined there, while often their neighbors talked in hushed tones and in fear of their own fate at the ‘specter of the poorhouse.

An eye-opener! Wagner carefully and judiciously combs through the data to give us a vivid picture of 19th-century institutions for the care of the American poor. There is nothing quite like this, and American social welfare history will never be the same.

– Frances Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology, CUNY

David Wagner’s extraordinary journey through the history of ‘the poorhouse’ in the United States is meticulously researched and brings alive, in eminently readable prose, the lives of those human beings who were both victims and overseers of this much-neglected part of American life. This is an important contribution to our social history.

– Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States

At a time in which the Social Security Act (1935) itself is under ideological assault, Wagner’s informative book is required reading.

– New England Quarterly

This impressively researched history of the poorhouse, a mainstay social welfare resource for 300 years in America, will fascinate and enlighten even a casual reader.

– Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work

For a small volume, David Wagner’s The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution has a hefty agenda. Over seven short chapters, Wagner sketches the story of the fabled symbol of vulnerability and failure that for generations accumulated America’s infirm, superannuated, and dispossessed while birthing specialized institutions for child welfare, substance abuse treatment, and psychiatric, medical, and geriatric care.

– Social Service Review