Women and the Poor Laws in Colonial America
Poverty, including poverty among women, was not absent in the American colonies. Despite the availability of land and high wages relative to Europe, the new arrivals did not escape the social and economic problems that plagued them in the Old World. 1 Class stratification, though less intense than in Europe, was visible early on, especially in urban areas. In Boston, in 1687, the richest 15 percent of the population owned 52 percent of the taxable wealth. By 1771, the top 15 percent owned about two-thirds and the top 5 percent owned some 44 percent of the wealth. In Philadelphia the concentration of wealth was even more pronounced, while in less developed areas the gap closed somewhat. 2
Initially the harsh conditions of immigration and settlement left most settlers destitute. While some traveled to the New World bearing resources provided by the English crown, many arrived ill, indentured, enslaved, or without any means of support. Natural catastrophes, war- fare, and epidemics as well as normal life events such as old age and illness made many others poor. By the mid-seventeenth century, poverty had become a high risk for the unskilled and semi-skilled city dweller, the landless tenant farmer, and the husbandless woman.
Between 1630 and 1645, Plymouth Colony reported 57 permanent relief cases in a population ranging over this period from 500 to 700 persons. The petitions for aid in the Massachusetts Bay Colony rose from eighteen between 1630 and 1639 to about twice that number from 1640 to 1645. 3 Although still relatively low and of manageable proportions after 1650, Massachusetts town records show 164 relief