The only asylum
Was the poorhouse, and those who could afford,
Rather than send their folks to such a place,
Kept them at home; and it does seem more human.
But it’s not so: the place is the asylum.
There they have every means proper to do with,
And you aren’t darkening other people’s lives….
Robert Frost (1874–1963), “A Servant to Servants”
Poorhouses (or Almshouses) were tax-supported residential institutions to which people were required to go if they could not support themselves. They were started as a method of providing a less expensive (to the taxpayers) alternative to what we would now call “welfare” – what was called “outdoor relief” in America’s early days.
People requested help from the community Overseer of the Poor (sometimes also called a Poor Master) – an elected town official. If the need was great or likely to be long-term, they were sent to the poorhouse instead of being given relief while they continued to live independently. Sometimes they were sent there even if they had not requested help from the Overseer of the Poor. That was usually done when they were found guilty of begging in public.
“Day laborers, who had worked all summer for a quarter a day, were lucky to get bed, board, and roll-your-own Bugler tobacco in exchange for help with winter chores. Some, in dire straits, went on relief or to the county poorhouse. Many times, farmers just took their tobacco checks to the grocer or the banker and turned it over to them to pay off bills and notes, maybe holding a little out for Christmas. Some got their checks cashed, got drunk, and lost it all in a poker game in Huntington, WV. Then the whole process started over.”
Tragedy on Greasy Ridge: True Stories from Appalachian Ohio
Danny Fulks, Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2003
By the 1930’s, the poorhouse population became increasingly more narrowly defined, as social welfare legislation (Workman’s Compensation, Unemployment benefits and Social Security) began to provide a rudimentary “safety net” for people who would previously have been pauperized by such circumstances. Eventually the poorhouses evolved almost exclusively into nursing homes for dependent elderly people. But poorhouses left orphanages, general hospitals and mental hospitals — for which they had provided the prototype — as their heritage.