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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Making the Poor Sing for Their Supper

In the 1800's, we built poorhouses:

These poorhouses were built with great optimism. They promised to be a much more efficient and cheaper way to provide relief to paupers. And there was a fervent popular belief that housing such people in institutions would provide the opportunity to reform them and cure them of the bad habits and character defects that were assumed to be the cause of their poverty.

Remember how well that worked out?

This is a suggestion for us to repeat the experiment with "mandatory work for 1.5 million men." Men that are behind on child support or on probation "would have to show up and work regularly -- on penalty of going to jail." While in jail they would be forced to work as well. This is intended to retrain the "poor men [who] want to work and succeed, yet ... cannot endure the slights and disappointments that work involves":

And Now, 'Welfare Reform' for Men, by Lawrence Mead, Commentary, Washington Post: Reforms in the 1990s shifted more than 60 percent of mothers off the welfare rolls, mostly into jobs. The changes used both "help and hassle" -- new subsidies for wages and child care coupled with stiffer demands to work as a condition of aid. So, how could we do the same for low-income men?

Low-income men, often the absent fathers of welfare families, got little attention from the reforms because they are seldom on welfare themselves. Like mothers on welfare, they seldom work regularly, and this helps to keep families poor. In 2005, there were more than 7 million poor men ages 16 to 50 in the United States, and only half of them worked at all. Among black men in poverty, nearly two-thirds were idle, and their employment has fallen steadily in recent decades.

Why are low-skilled men withdrawing from work just when unskilled jobs appear plentiful and immigrants are flooding into the country to take them? One reason might be that the wages these men could earn have fallen, so, the thinking goes, why work for chump change? Yet these men failed to work more even in the 1990s, when wages for low-skilled jobs rose. It's more likely that male work discipline has deteriorated. Poor men want to work and succeed, yet many cannot endure the slights and disappointments that work involves. That's why poor men usually can obtain jobs yet seldom keep them.

Employing larger numbers of low-income men isn't going to be easy. Congress is likely to raise the minimum wage, and wage subsidies for low-skilled men could also be increased. But if low wages are not the main cause of male nonwork, these steps will change little. In welfare reform, improving work incentives by itself had little effect. Coupling new benefits to definite demands to work is what drove welfare mothers to work and then rewarded them. The same is probably true here: Nonworking men deserve to earn more, but they also must be required to work, as they seldom are today. Formerly, they could have entered the Army, where they could be ordered to work, and military service does help some men get their lives together. Unfortunately, today's volunteer military is too selective to accept most disadvantaged applicants.

A better idea is to use the child support system, which requires absent fathers to support their families, and the criminal justice system, which is supposed to supervise many ex-offenders on parole after they leave prison. Right now these institutions depress male work levels by locking men up, and by garnishing their wages if they do work. But they could be used to promote work. For example, men in arrears on their child support could be assigned to work programs, as could parolees with employment problems. These men -- about 1.5 million each year -- would have to show up and work regularly -- on penalty of going to jail. Both groups might also receive wage subsidies. The combination might instill more regular work habits.

Mandatory work programs have not yet shown that they can raise work levels for men the way they did for women in welfare reform. However, past programs were not implemented well, and new experiments in prison reentry programs are being evaluated.

Mandatory work for 1.5 million men would cost $2 billion to $5 billion a year. In return, governments would collect more in child support and spend less on incarceration. ...

The nation needs work requirements not just for mothers on welfare but for nonworking men who owe debts to society. Like welfare reform, that policy might appear severe, but its aim is integration. Through steadier work, these men can come in from the cold.

There are other possible outcomes. For instance, a requirement to work or face some penalty such as loss of benefits may cause some poor to forgo the benefits and work in the underground economy and/or engage in criminal behavior causing the expected benefits listed above - higher formal employment and less crime - to be offset.

The suggestion is to implement what we might call mandatory "work attitude adjustment camps." But the reasons for the idle poor may not be as as simple as portrayed, and the notion of "men who owe debts to society" is too easy to expand to include nearly all the nonworking poor. Here's what happened last time we tried something like this:

History of 19th Century American Poorhouses: What Were Poorhouses? ...Poorhouses were tax-supported residential institutions to which people were required to go if they could not support themselves. They were started as a method of providing a less expensive (to the taxpayers) alternative to what we would now days call "welfare" - what was called "outdoor relief" in those days. People requested help from the community Overseer of the Poor (sometimes also called a Poor Master) - an elected town official. If the need was great or likely to be long-term, they were sent to the poorhouse instead of being given relief while they continued to live independently. Sometimes they were sent there even if they had not requested help from the Overseer of the Poor. That was usually done when they were found guilty of begging in public, etc. ...

Before Poorhouses Prior to the establishment of poorhouses the problem of what to do with paupers in a community was dealt with in one of three ways:

  1. Outdoor Relief provided through an Overseer of the Poor: When people fell upon hard times and members of their family, friends or members of their church congregations could not provide enough assistance to tide them over, they made application to an elected local official called the Overseer of the Poor. Within a budget of tax money, he might provide them with food, fuel, clothing, or even permission to get medical treatment to be paid out of tax funds.
  2. Auctioning off the Poor: People who could not support themselves (and their families) were put up for bid at public auction. ...[T]he pauper was sold to the ... person who would agree to provide room and board for the lowest price..., usually this was for a specific period of a year or so. The person who got the contract got the use of the labor of the pauper for free... This was actually a form of indentured servitude. ... 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 ..., then ..[this] 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. (See scan of an authentic record of an auction in 1832 in Sandown NH.)
  3. Contracting with someone in the community to care for Paupers: In this situation the care of a group of paupers was delegated to the person(s) who would contract to provide care at, again, the lowest price. This system allowed the opportunity for somewhat better supervision as indicated in the terms of the contract -- which might specify what minimum standard of care must be provided and that community officers would do inspections, etc. There were still often the same opportunities for abuse that were noted above.

Note: In some cases (before state laws began to require the establishment of County Poorhouses) local communities had already discovered that a place to house paupers helped reduce the cost of poor relief. These small town poorhouses were the prototypes for the later state-required county poorhouses. Those earlier poorhouses often instituted the use of an adjacent farm on which the paupers could work to raise their own food, thus making the houses more self-sufficient (relying less on local tax funds). That is how the term "poor farm" came into being.

The Beginning of the County Poorhouse System During the second quarter of the 19th century, as the industrial revolution had its effect on the United States, the importation of the factory system from England was followed almost immediately by the full scale adoption of what seemed to be an inherent component of that system -- the Poorhouse System. These poorhouses were built with great optimism. They promised to be a much more efficient and cheaper way to provide relief to paupers. And there was a fervent popular belief that housing such people in institutions would provide the opportunity to reform them and cure them of the bad habits and character defects that were assumed to be the cause of their poverty.

The Disillusionment By mid-century, people were beginning to question the success of the poorhouse movement. Investigations were launched to examine the conditions in poorhouses. They had proven to be much more expensive than had been anticipated. And they had not significantly reduced the numbers of the "unworthy poor" nor eliminated the need for "outdoor relief".  (This was public assistance given to those living outside the poorhouses. It was given somewhat grudgingly to those considered to be [perhaps!] more "worthy" poor --who might only briefly and temporarily require assistance to procure food or fuel or clothing when they fell on very short-term hard times.) ...

[from another site] In rural states like Minnesota and Iowa, county officials purchased large tracts of land and established farms in hopes of using pauper labor to produce crops. It soon became apparent they would not be profitable. A 1925 federal report found much of the land lying idle.

Most of the people at poorfarms were not able to work, because of physical or mental disability. Some did help out at poorfarms, caring for animals, cutting wood or working in the kitchen. Others picked up odd jobs in local communities.

"In general, most of the men were a hard lot with habits characteristic of their type. ..."... Poorhouses were also designed to change the behavior and character of inmates. This idea was based on the classification of poor as "worthy" and "unworthy." Unworthy poor were considered to have character flaws, which were often listed as the reason they were in the poorhouse. [return to original]

The Transition By 1875, after the regulation of poorhouses in most states became the responsibility of the State Board of Charities, laws were passed prohibiting children from residing in poorhouses and removing mentally ill patients and others with special needs to more appropriate facilities.

The poorhouse population was even more narrowly defined during the twentieth century when social welfare legislation (Workman’s Compensation, Unemployment benefits and Social Security) began to provide a rudimentary “safety net” for people who would previously have been pauperized by such circumstances. ...

By the 1950s, poorhouses were mostly gone, or reconstituted into other institutions such as old age homes.

    Posted by on Tuesday, March 20, 2007 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Social Insurance, Unemployment | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (35)

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