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Children have historically been the most anonymous yet the most vulnerable of America’s poor. Even today, when the United States is the richest country in the world, the largest block—19 percent—of the poor is made up of persons under the age of eighteen. In 1960 impoverished children made up 25 percent of the poor in America. For minority groups such as African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans, the numbers are even grimmer. And the number of children in poverty has risen since the new millennium by well over a million. Children who live in poverty are vulnerable to disease, both physical and mental, are often malnourished, tend to struggle to learn in school, and often become entrenched in a way of life that carries them into adulthood. Notwithstanding the increased understanding of the causes and consequences of child poverty, social and behavioral scientists and government planners and researchers have been unable to reverse its continuing prevalence in American society.
Emigrants and Apprentices
From the beginning of English settlements in America, there were impoverished children, who made up a significant portion of the poor in Tudor-Stuart England. Leaders in government and religion were at a loss as to how to halt the rising tide of poverty or what to do with orphans and child vagabonds. Feeble attempts were made during the long reign of Elizabeth I. The 1562 Statute of Artificers laid the foundation for the laws of apprenticeship. Legislation in 1597 directed parish overseers of the poor to make provision for the care and employment of poor youth. These laws continued in force during the reigns of
the Stuart kings, when the first English colonies were established. With the successful establishment of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, a solution for ongoing child poverty dawned on English entrepreneurs with profit more than compassion on their minds. The plan involved gathering up orphaned and impoverished children and transporting them to the colonies—to labor there until age twenty-one, when they would be set up with land that they could own or rent. In 1619, for example, 100 children were transported to the Jamestown colony on the condition that, on reaching the proper age, they would be freed and presented with fifty acres of land to farm, holding the land in fee simple with a modest rent to pay. A year later another shipment of youthful cargo arrived in Jamestown, this group having less favorable terms, because the novelty of the experiment had worn off: they were to receive twenty-five acres of land, holding it in fee simple as before, but not until seven years after they reached their majority. In other words, after serving as apprentices until the age of twenty-one, followed by seven further years of bound servitude, they would begrudgingly be given the chance to make it on their own in the new world. This harsh, sometimes cruel system continued for many decades, during which rich Englanders believed that they were doing their Christian duty by supporting the mass transport of children to the colonies. One London noteworthy, Anthony Abde, provided funds in his will “to be disposed and bestowed by my Executors upon twenty poore Boyes and Girles to be taken up out of the streets of London as vagrants for the Cloathing and transporting of them either to Virginia New England or any other of the Western Plantations there to be placed.” On the other hand, it was all too easy for spirits to kidnap orphans and put them on board a ship bound for America. In 1660, the case of the ship Seven Brothers was hardly unique. This ship was bound for Virginia; included in its cargo were youths who had been “deceived and inticed away Cryinge and Mourning for Redemption from their Slavery.” In 1664 during the reign of Charles II, an act attempted to curtail the abuses incumbent on such manipulation of children, providing that no child under the age of twelve could be transported to America without the permission of a relative or close friend. And in 1670 Parliament attempted, without success, to end the practice of spiriting children by condemning to the gallows those spirits who were captured and found guilty.
During the colonial period, the apprenticeship of impoverished children bound to a master generally followed the pattern set forth in England by the Statute of Artificers of 1562 and the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601. The English system of apprenticeship involved the binding of a child to a master for at least seven years, until he or she reached the age of twenty-one or twenty-four, in return for which the master contracted to teach the child a craft and serve as surrogate parent during the time of the child’s minority. Apprenticeship was an option for poor parents who struggled to feed their children or who could provide little education in skills that would help the child earn an independent living as an adult. At other times, to prevent an impoverished or orphaned child from becoming a public charge, the local parish bound the child to a master without the child’s consent. In such a case, the object was more to find employment for a pauper than to teach a trade to a deserving person. The indenture of apprenticeship was similar to the indenture of servitude respecting the servant’s responsibilities and master’s obligations, save that the former called for a specific educational and technical component—the servant was to learn a craft and, sometimes, grammar, spelling, and arithmetic. A typical indenture of apprenticeship from 1718 New York reads:
This Indenture Wittnesseth that I, William Mathews . . . doth voluntarily and of his own free Will and Accord and by the Consent of his . . . Mother put himself Apprentice to Thomas Windover . . . Cordwiner with him to live and to serve . . . untill the full Term of seven years be Compleat and Ended. During all which Term the said Apprentice his said Master Thomas Windover faithfully shall serve his secrets keep, his lawfull Commands gladly everywhere Obey, he shall do no damage . . . to his said Master, he shall not waste his said Masters Goods, nor lend them unlawfully to any, he shall not Committ fornication nor Contract Matrimony with the said Term. . . . He shall not absent himself day or night from his Masters service without his leave, nor haunt Alehouses, Taverns or Playhouses, but in all things as a faithful apprentice he shall behave himself towards his said Master and all his during the said Term. And the said Master during the said Term shall, by the best means or Method that he can Teach or Cause the said Apprentice to be taught the Art or Mystery of a Cordwiner, and shall find and provide unto the said Apprentice sufficient Meat, Drink, Apparel, Lodging and washing fitting for an Apprentice, and shall during the said Term every winter at Nights give him one Quarters schooling, and at the Expiration of the said Term to provide for the said Apprentice a sufficient New Suit of Apparell four shirts and two Necletts, for the true Performance of all and every the said Covenants and agreements Either of the said parties bind themselves unto the Other by these Presents.
Other than apprenticeship, early American communities provided for orphaned and impoverished children through all of the typical means of poor relief: direct relief, the almshouse, the workhouse, and the asylum. Colonial Boston provided education for orphans, apprentices, and other young paupers. Children were part of the overall system of poor relief, subject to the direction of the overseers of the poor. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, selectmen and overseers of the poor routinely placed orphaned children in homes until the children reached adulthood. For example, the town clerk recorded that in 1678 an orphaned girl, age five, was bound to a man until she was twenty, during which time he was “to find her with sufficient meate, drinke, clothing washing and Lodging and to teach her to reade.” With the maturation of society in such cities as Portsmouth, more sophisticated institutions were developed to provide for the care of the poor, including impoverished children. Most significant eighteenth-century seaport cities built almshouses and workhouses in which, regardless of age or gender, the poor were put to work to earn their keep and reform their morals. Some institutions were exclusively for children. For example, concerned citizens of Portsmouth established the Portsmouth Female Asylum in 1804 to care for orphans, as well as girls whose parents could not provide the necessary support. The girls received education in reading, personal care, religion, and the domestic arts. Governesses read from the Bible daily “to inculcate the principles of religion.” Children rose at six in morning, washed in cold water, combed their hair, ate at eight, played until nine, attended school until noon when they dined, studied from two to five, when they had an hour to play, supped at six, and went to bed at eight.
The trend toward the institutionalization of impoverished children and the poor in general continued into the nineteenth century. The almshouse and workhouse combined to become the poorhouse, an institution with neither beauty nor gentleness, the exclusive goal of which was work and moral reform. Unfortunately for the poor inmate, the poorhouse itself needed institutional reform. For example, the poorhouse of Erie County, in western New York, which housed the children of many adult paupers, was a place of suffering and death during the first half of the 1800s. One observer wrote that “the whole policy of the Poorhouse is niggardly and mean. Cheap provisions, cheap doctors, cheap nurses, cheap medicines, cheapness everywhere is the rule.” The food, care, and accommodations of the poor were terrible and disgusting. Meals consisted of gristly pork, half-baked bread, coffee, and tea. For months at a time, the inmates received no vegetables, causing some to develop scurvy. The ventilation was bad, the air foul, and the stench incredible. The poorhouse, in short, spawned suffering and death.
Lying-in women have died of fever, leaving their children, and the numerous foundlings brought to the house, to die of starvation together. Brought there as bright, healthy infants, these little offsprings of misfortune and crime have scarcely an average of four weeks of [life] in this great lazar house. Older children become idiotic, dwarfed, inanimate; and men and women die from a hundred diseases, written down upon the casebook with Latin names, but which might be better called starvation.
Equally dramatic was Jacob Riis’s description of children on the city streets of New York in How the Other Half Lives. Riis, a journalist and reformer who probed the existence of the poor and forgotten in New York, found astonishing the number of poor children without apparent home or family; equally astonishing were the numbers who ostensibly had a family that had abandoned them to find their own food, care, and love on the filthy streets of the city. Riis researched an East Side tenement that had two-score families with, he estimated, 170 children. Most were hungry and ignorant, few went to school, and their family life consisted of “running for beer for their elders”—they found it safer to spend their nights on the streets rather than with their drunken, violent parents. Riis realized that such children were not inherently evil or savage—their environment made them ignorant and engaged in a constant search for survival. The children knew little of religion or culture, yet Riis claimed that so rare was even the sight of the beauty of a flower that the waifs for-got all else if presented with a bouquet. New York authorities were sufficiently aware of the problem that, according to Riis
in the last fifteen years of this tireless battle for the safety of the State the intervention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has been invoked for 138,891 little ones; it has thrown its protection around more than twenty-five thousand helpless children, and has convicted nearly sixteen thousand wretches of child-beating and abuse. Add to this the standing army of fifteen thousand dependent children in New York’s asylums and institutions, and some idea is gained of the crop that is garnered day by day in the tenements, of the enormous force employed to check their inroads on our social life, and of the cause for apprehension that would exist did their efforts flag for ever so brief a time.
Most perplexing for the reformer was the street arab, a child who roamed the streets in a Darwinian survival of the fittest. “Vagabond that he is,” wrote Riis
acknowledging no authority and owing no allegiance to anybody or anything, with his grimy fist raised against society whenever it tries to coerce him, he is as bright and sharp as the weasel, which, among all the predatory beasts, he most resembles His sturdy independence, love of freedom and absolute self-reliance, together with his rude sense of justice that enables him to govern his little community, not always in accordance with municipal law or city ordinances, but often a good deal closer to the saving line of “doing to others as one would be done by.”
Riis noted the many private institutions that intervened on behalf of the impoverished children of New York: the most significant were the Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity (New York Foundling Hospital) and the Children’s Aid Society. Children who were found by the police and became wards of the city ended up at Randall’s Island Hospital, where the mortality rate for young children was more than 60 percent. Children had a much better chance if they were picked up by the Sisters of Charity. Sister Mary Irene, a nun at the Sisters of Charity of St. Peter’s Convent, opened the foundling asylum in 1869. Over the years, an “Adoption Department,” a “Maternity Pavilion,” and St. John’s Hospital for Children were founded. “The Children’s Aid Society,” wrote Riis
came into existence as an emphatic protest against the tenement corruption of the young, has sheltered quite three hundred thousand outcast, homeless, and orphaned children in its lodging-houses, and has found homes in the West for seventy thousand that had none.
Charles Loring Brace, a Christian minister who founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, wrote of his experiences and acquired knowledge in The Dangerous Classes of New York. Brace argued that ignorance, illiteracy, broken marriages, immigration, lack of training in a trade, overcrowding, and alcoholism are prime causes of criminal activity among the young poor. Brace sought solutions for the problems of the city, advocating education of children as
a better preventive of pauperism than charity. The best police and the most complete form of government are nothing if the individual morality be not there. But Christianity is the highest education of character. Give the poor that, and only seldom will either alms or punishment be necessary.
Believing impoverished children to be particularly susceptible to the temptations and corrupting influences of the city, Brace described the “temptations which beset the class of unfortunate children and similar classes,” including
the inducements to sharpness, deception, roguery, lying, fraud, coarseness, vice in many forms, besides toward open offenses against the law; the few restraining influences in social opinion, good example, or inherited self-control; the forces without and the organization within impelling to crime. There are thousands on thousands in New York who have no assignable home, and ‘flit’ from attic to attic, and cellar to cellar; there are other thousands more or less connected with criminal enterprises; and still other tens of thousands, poor, hard-pressed, and depending for daily bread on the day’s earnings, swarming in tenement-houses, who behold the gilded rewards of toil all about them, but are never permitted to touch them. All these great masses of destitute, miserable, and criminal persons believe that for ages the rich have had all the good things of life, while to them have been left the evil things. Capital to them is the tyrant.
A literary example of the experiences of poor children in New York comes from the writings of Stephen Crane, who wrote novels and short stories at the turn of the century. In fictional works such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and
An Experiment in Misery, Crane provided a realistic, horrifying, and depressing portrait of the lives of children and young adults in the Bowery of Manhattan in New York. Jimmy and Maggie, brother and sister of drunken parents living in a broken down tenement in the Bowery, live a brutal life, seeking to survive amid violence and poverty on the streets as well as at home: “Eventually they entered a dark region where,” Crane wrote
from a careening building, a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and the gutter. A wind of early autumn raised yellow dust from cobbles and swirled it against a hundred windows. Long streamers of garments fluttered from fire-escapes. In all unhandy places there were buckets, brooms, rags, and bottles. In the street infants played or fought with other infants or sat stupidly in the way of vehicles. Formidable women, with uncombed hair and disordered dress, gossiped while leaning on railings, or screamed in frantic quarrels. Withered persons, in curious postures of submission to something, sat smoking pipes in obscure corners. A thousand odours of cooking food came forth to the street. The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels.
The characters in Crane’s fiction are lost in the city—spiritually, morally dispossessed from society, family, and self. Meaning, such as it is, comes from the experience of the city rather from a sense of self-worth, which has been destroyed by poverty. The poor were forgotten, anonymous. Maggie, in Crane’s words, who was “attired in tatters and grime . . . went unseen.”
Poverty among children was alleviated, although not removed, during the twentieth century. During the first two decades, impoverished children and their families were helped by the Progressives: under President Taft, the Children’s Bureau was established in 1912 and Congress passed child labor legislation in 1916. During the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s and subsequent liberal programs inspired by the New Deal, such as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, the federal government increased its actions on behalf of children. Because of the misery that the Great Depression brought to families with children, in 1935 Congress passed the Social Security Act, which included the Aid to Dependent Children. In this program, the federal government reimbursed states for part of the funds spent on impoverished children. After 1950 the program was extended to parents of dependent children and the name was changed to Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The program included the availability of food stamps for poor families and money for medical care (a precursor to Medicaid). More recent attempts to help children include the creation of Head Start during the 1960s, the founding of the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund in 1973, and a host of congressional laws directed toward helping children, such as the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (1980) and the Family Support Act (1988).
Notwithstanding the wealth of America, child poverty still stands at 19 percent— an improvement, at least, over the poverty rate of children from 1996 compared to that of 1990 and 1987 to that of 1981, when it was more than 20 percent, or an improvement in the face of an astonishing fact: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in four of the poor from 1959 to 1962 was a child under the age of eighteen. These figures rise when the population is restricted to African Americans, American Indians, or Hispanic Americans. Today, impoverished Caucasian children make up 11 percent, but 36 percent of African American children, 32 percent of American Indian children, and 29 percent of Hispanic American children live in poverty.
- Brace, Charles Loring, The Dangerous Classes of New York, and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them (New York: Wynkoop and Hallenbeck, 1872);
- Bridenbaugh, Carl, Cities in Revolt (New York: Oxford, 1955);
- Crane, Stephen, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (New York: Appleton, 1896);
- Herrick, Cheesman A., White Servitude in Pennsylvania, Indentured and Redemption Labor in Colony and Commonwealth (Philadelphia: McVey, 1926);
- Katz, Michael B., Poverty and Policy in American History (New York: Academic Press, 1983);
- Kids Count (http://www.kidscount.org);
- Morse, Richard B., Government and Labor in Early America (New York: Harper & Row, 1965);
- Portsmouth New Hampshire Town Records, typescript, Portsmouth Public Library;
- Riis, Jacob A., How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890);
- Smith, Abbot Emerson, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776 (New York: Norton, 1971);
- The Rules, Regulations, & c. of the Portsmouth Female Asylum, with the Act of Incorporation (1815).
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