New York State on the
Eve of the Depression:
Attitudes and Policy
ON the very eve of the Great Depression, almost in anticipation of what was to come, New York State enacted a public welfare law which, according to contemporary reformers and the social workers who promoted it, was a model of humanitarian reform, a departure from the Elizabethan past, and a step onto the threshold of the future. In their praises, commentators credited the Public Welfare Law of 1929 with removing the stigma of poverty from the poor, modernizing the antiquated machinery of the old poor law, and revolutionizing the whole concept of public relief. In regard to the indigent transient, the law was seen as a landmark in the acceptance of state responsibility for all poor -- resident and nonresident alike.
On the surface this assessment was correct. The 1929 law, as we shall see, changed the terminology of the poor law and humanized many of its services. However, the spirit of this law, as interpreted by its supporters, came into direct conflict with attitudes and past practices dating as far back as fourteenth-century England, and with a very active application of those precedents in the history of New York State. The law itself was, in fact, but one step in an ongoing conflict between such deeply rooted attitudes that rejected the able-bodied poor and/or the indigent transient and the steadily encroaching development of what has come to be known as the welfare state. Upon closer examination, the 1929 law proves to be but a