In 1820, the Massachusetts General Court appointed a special committee, headed by Josiah Quincy, a well-known politician and reformer, to study the problems of the poor relief system and to recommend revisions of the laws on poor relief.
From the Report:
. . . . Your Committee . . . ask leave to state . . . the actual condition of pauperism in Massachusetts.
The principle of pauper laws is that of a state, or public, or as sometimes called, a compulsory provision for the poor. The poor are of two classes.
1)The impotent poor; in which denomination are included all, who are wholly incapable of work, through old age, infancy, sickness or corporeal debility.
2) The able poor; in which denomination are included all, who are capable of work, of some nature, or other; but differing in the degree of their capacity, and in the kind of work, of which they are capable.
With the respect to the first class; that of poor, absolutely impotent, were there none other than this class, there would be little difficulty, either as to the principle, or as to the mode of extending relief.
But another class exists; that of the able poor; in relation to which, and from the difficulty of discriminating between this class and the former, and of apportioning the degree of public provision to the degree of actual impotency, arise all the objections to the principle of the existing pauper system. The evils, also, which are attributed to this system, of diminishing the industry, destroying the economical habits and eradicating the providence of the labouring class of society may all be referred to the same source;—the difficulty of discriminating between the able poor and the impotent poor and of apportioning the degree of public provision to the degree of actual impotency.
. . . It is laborious to ascertain the exact merit of each applicant. Supply is sometimes excessive; at others misplaced. The poor begin to consider it [relief] as a right; next, they calculate upon it as an income. The stimulus to industry and economy is annihilated, or weakened; temptations to extravagance and dissipation are increased, in proportion as public supply is likely, or certain, or desirable. The just pride of independence, so honorable to man, in every condition, is thus corrupted by the certainty of public provision; and is either weakened, or destroyed according to the facility of its attainment, or its amount.
Views of this kind, connected with the experience of England, under the operation of her poor laws, have led some of her most distinguished statesmen and writers on public economy, to denounce all public, or
compulsory provision for the poor, as increasing the evil they pretend to remedy, and augmenting the misery they undertake to prevent. . . . in every case, where means of work were connected with such [poor]houses, in united districts, and when they have been superintended by the principal inhabitants, they have been greatly beneficial. . . both as it respects the better condition of the poor, and also as to the reduction of the expense…
Upon the whole, your Committee apprehend that the experience both of England and of Massachusetts concur in the five following results, which may be well adopted as principles, in relation to the whole subject.
1. That of all modes of providing the poor, the most wasteful, the most expensive, and most injurious to their morals and destructive of their industrious habits is that of supply in their own families.
2. That the most economical mode is that of Alms Houses; having the character of Work Houses, or Houses of Industry, in which work is provided for every degree of ability in the pauper; and thus the able poor made to provide, partially, at least for their own support; and also to the support, or at least the comfort of the impotent poor.
3. That of all modes of employing the labor of the pauper, agriculture affords the best, the most healthy, and the most certainly profitable; the poor being thus enabled, to raise, always, at least their own provisions.
4. That the success of these establishments depends upon their being placed under the superintendance of a Board of Overseers, constituted of the most substantial and intelligent inhabitants of the vicinity.
5. That of all causes of pauperism, intemperance, in the use of spirituous liquors, is the most powerful and universal…
While, therefore, your Committee on the one hand are of opinion, that no subject more imperiously claims the attention and solicitude of the Legislature:—that it is the duty of society by general arrangements, to attempt to diminish the increase of pauperism, as well as to make provision for that which is inevitable; the diminution of the evil is most surely to be effected by making Alms Houses, Houses of Industry, . . . and denying for the most part all supply from public provision, except on condition of admission into the public institution. . . .
For the Committee,
JOSIAH QUINCY, Chairman.