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A poorhouse or workhouse is a government-run (usually by a county or municipality) facility to support and provide housing for the dependent and/or needy.


In England, Wales and Ireland (but not in Scotland)[1] a poorhouse was more commonly known as a workhouse. In early Victorian times (see Poor Law), poverty was seen as a dishonorable state. As depicted by Charles Dickens, a workhouse could resemble a reformatory, often housing whole families, or a penal labour regime giving manual work to the indigent and subjecting them to physical punishment. At a workhouse, men and women were split up with no communication between them.

Poor farms[edit]

Often the poorhouse was situated on the grounds of a poor farm on which able-bodied residents were required to work; such farms were common in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A poorhouse could even be part of the same economic complex as a prison farm and other penal or charitable public institutions. Poor farms were county- or town-run residences where paupers (mainly elderly and disabled people) were supported at public expense. The farms declined in use after the Social Security Act took effect in 1935, with most disappearing completely by about 1950.

Most were working farms that produced at least some of the produce, grain, and livestock they consumed. Residents were expected to provide labor to the extent that their health would allow, both in the fields and in providing housekeeping and care for other residents. Rules were strict and accommodations minimal.

Poor farms were the origin of the U.S. tradition of county governments (rather than cities, townships, or state or federal governments) providing social services for the needy within their borders; the federal government did not participate in social welfare for over 70 years following the 1854 veto of the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane by Franklin Pierce. This tradition has continued and is in most cases codified in state law, although the financial costs of such care have been shifted in part to state and federal governments.

Anne Sullivan was raised in such a facility during the later 19th century before leaving it for the Perkins School for the Blind and before becoming Helen Keller's teacher and later lifelong companion. The novel The Miracle Worker, its 1957 TV play, 1959 Broadway play, and its 1962 film adaptation and 1979 and 2000 television adaptations included descriptions of the harsh conditions that Sullivan observed in the Tewksbury, Massachusetts, facility.

See also[edit]



Further reading[edit]

  • Rothman, David J., (editor). "The Almshouse Experience", in series Poverty U.S.A.: The Historical Record, 1971. ISBN 0-405-03092-4

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