Women and Nineteenth Century Relief
The rise of industrial capitalism transformed poverty from a social into a political problem and threw the poor law system into crisis. Given the incompatibility between the colonial poor laws and the emerging economy, new means had to be found to assist families in distress while stemming rising relief costs, maintaining the labor supply, and enforcing the new family ethic. The key early nineteenth-century reforms--cutbacks in outdoor relief, the rise of institutional care, and the growth of private charities--accomplished these ends by mixing rehabilitation with deterrence and punishment. Both the coerciveness of the antebellum reforms and the hardship they imposed on the poor intensified as the nation entered still another period of rapid growth, change, and instability.
The colonial poor law system fell into crisis in urban America early in the 1820s as the process of capitalist development began to move the United States from the fourth to the most industrialized country in the world. 1 Industrial output climbed from $149 million in 1810 to $1,886 billion in 1860. 2 Industry's increasing need to maximize profits and cheapen the price of labor, left few workers, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity, with the share of the product that their labor produced. As the survival of workers became more dependent on