Poor, Destitute, and Legally Entitled
The Paupers of Albany, New York, 1785 to 1800
Compared to major studies that analyze poverty in urban areas, this paper addresses the dynamics of poverty and poor relief in an inland community of New York State. Rather than interpret poverty based on the urban experience or in terms of political reaction, economic fluctuation, or social reform, this study examines a secondary city and uses social history to examine poverty based on the human experience. The lives of every pauper on Albany, New York's first municipal poor role have been recast to determine the source of poverty, and to analyze demographics, social, and economic issues that affected paupers and their daily lives.
This paper discusses the lives of twelve paupers, from birth to death, and draws on research at the Colonial Albany Social History Project, a database of 16,000 people living in Albany before 1800. Using social and family history combined with economic and public policy analysis, this study redefines poverty and poor relief in early America at the same time denotes social conflict, the seeds of lower class discrimination and the American welfare system.
While scholars state that political, social, and economic changes influenced the rise in poverty, this study determined it was changes in individual people's lives that increased poverty. In Albany, most people became poor because of personal or family problems. While many indigent were granted relief because of need, others received aid since they were legally entitled, although, not needy. New issues in poverty also are addressed. Natural increase, for instance, was a main reason poverty escalated in post-Revolutionary Albany. Additionally, Albany's poor were not unskilled workers, but were from every socio-economic level. Most of the poor were former middle-class craftsmen; the minority was laborers and service workers. Other paupers were businessmen or were from the upper or merchant class. Indigent people were typically older than fifty, were white males, and long-time city residents.
This study concludes that paupers in Albany were atypical compared to those living in major American cities. In Albany poverty resulted from personal problems suggesting Americans in other cities and towns became indigent because of personal issues - issues that were independent of economic fluctuation and political reform, unemployment, and immigration. This study suggests that human experience is an element in the cause of poverty.