Elna C. Green. This Business of Relief: Confronting Poverty in a Southern City, 1740-1940. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2003. xiii + 356 pages. ISBN 0-8203-2451-5. Reviewed by Steven Noll, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
|"Deftly written and diligently researched, this book adds to a burgeoning literature on the urban South . . ."|
Green opens her book by examining colonial Richmond, a trading post established at the falls of the James River in 1742. A small but increasingly important entrepot, Richmond's fortunes increased with the establishment of the Virginia capital there in 1780. Green challenges the myth that poor relief (she uses this term interchangeably with “welfare”) in the colonial and early national periods came strictly under the purview of private and religious organizations. “Poor relief,” she maintains, “was one of the most important functions of local government in early American history” (p. 9). Virginia's and Richmond's public responses to poverty and the problems surrounding it were based on the English model established during Elizabethan times. The ideas of local governmental control, relief based on individualized needs, gendered notions of dependency, and residency requirements for governmental help formed the core of Virginia's formal and informal responses to poverty. Virginians also believed that work was the key to avoiding dependency, hence Virginian poor laws were grounded in the “firmly and widely held belief that all able-bodied persons should work” (p. 14). The irony that slaves, Virginia's most dependent persons, worked hardest of all seems to have been lost on colonial and early national policy makers. By 1790, Virginia and Richmond had developed a three tiered system that would furnish the basic structure for governmental poor relief for the next two centuries. The city of Richmond remained responsible for most interventions, providing outdoor relief (work opportunities and outright grants) to worthy poor and dependent persons. The state supported dependent insane persons through its asylum, established in the old colonial capital of Williamsburg. This represented an understanding of the relationship of disability and dependency. Finally, the state also established a program of veterans' pensions for wounded Revolutionary war soldiers, designed to help “worthy” dependent individuals and their families through small cash stipends.
Early national Richmond was a bustling, growing city that still retained much of its frontier character. Populated by a growing number of young, unmarried males searching for jobs, as well as an increasing amount of freed and rented slaves, Richmond was beset with a wave of “gambling, drinking, fighting, and arrests” (p. 24). Tied in with the violence and rootlessness was an increase in urban poverty. In response to these problems, Richmond built its first “poorhouse” in 1805 in an effort to alleviate dependency and poverty. Serving simultaneously as a hospital, an orphanage, a temporary homeless shelter, a workhouse, and a symbol of Richmond's civic responsibility; Richmond's poorhouse remained the cornerstone of public relief efforts for generations. Green shows that this public concern dovetailed nicely with the work of private and religious benevolent organizations. With Richmond's economy increasingly tied to outside market forces by the 1830s, public and private relief efforts became more complex and interconnected. Large private charitable organizations, such as the Union Benevolent Society founded in 1836, provided support for specific groups of “worthy” dependent individuals. Conversely, the city's attempts to handle poverty focused on the poorhouse and moved away from grants of outdoor relief. This system of public and private efforts lasted fitfully through the antebellum period but “would ultimately break down under the stress of the Civil War” (p. 67).
The Civil War and its aftermath in Richmond precipitated an economic crisis in the city. With its economy in tatters and its infrastructure destroyed, Richmond struggled to help the large numbers of destitute individuals, white and black, living in the city. During the war, working class Richmonders, struggling with hyperinflation and declining food supplies, took to the streets in April 1863 to protest their plight. These “Bread Riots” pointed out the need for government help to alleviate difficult conditions. Ironically, a Confederate nation founded on the principle of limited government was forced to interfere in the daily lives of citizens because of “the inability of local relief and private charity to deal with a massive economic crisis” (p. 84). Economic conditions worsened with the end of the war. A massive influx of freed slaves changed the racial composition of Richmond's dependent population and forced city residents to come to grips with the racial dimensions of poverty and dependency. With state and local governments and private agencies unable (or unwilling) to deal with issues of black poverty, the federal Freedman's Bureau filled the void. A major participant in the politics of social welfare during Reconstruction, the Bureau fell victim to broader issues of race and white Southern “redemption.” As whites regained control of Virginia and Richmond politics by the mid 1870s, “the city's public welfare would be extended to African-Americans on a begrudging, segregated basis” (p. 102).
With the end of Reconstruction and the simultaneous economic downturn of the mid- 1870s, Richmonders turned again to local government and private charitable organizations to help alleviate poverty. Whereas antebellum public and private agencies worked together (albeit grudgingly), the development of the Charity Organization Society (COS) saw the demise of this partnership as members of this group would “launch a powerful offensive against public welfare” (p. 110). Preaching the values of hard work, sobriety, and personal responsibility, COS members fit in well with the business-oriented ethos of the New South and its attempts to rebuild the South on an industrial model. While some city residents worried over the increase in urban poverty, others expressed concern over the plight of disabled and dependent Confederate veterans. By the 1880s, this concern radically reshaped welfare in Richmond and throughout the South, as Southern states allocated significant sums of money to help destitute Confederate veterans and their families. Not thought of as relief, this government largess took up considerable portions of small state budgets in the forty years from 1880 to 1920. Tied to an increasingly sentimentalized vision of the Civil War, this government welfare program was part of a broader program to memorialize the Confederate soldier. The racialized aspects of the war, and any mention of slavery, were subsumed to a romantic patriotic vision of the Lost Cause. Couched in those terms, relief benefits for Confederate veterans received little opposition from white Richmond residents, even well into the twentieth century.
The Progressive Era saw the impact of reformers and activists who encouraged the growth of an activist state. They established closer ties between public and private relief efforts. They also tried to professionalize their field, turning charity helpers into social workers. Richmond hired its first full-time social worker in 1922, assigning her to caseloads at the City Home (i.e., the former almshouse, the name of which had been changed seventeen years earlier as an indication, states Green, “of the softened attitudes towards the poor stimulated by progressive thinking”; p. 145). These new attitudes towards poor relief would be tested as Richmond, and the rest of the nation, endured the Great Depression.
The Great Depression required a whole new way of handling the issues of poverty and poor relief. Green concludes that “the South's system of social provision was fundamentally changed by the New Deal's welfare programs” (p. 177). The extraordinarily conservative nature of Virginia's ruling Democratic machine, headed by Harry Byrd, did its best to limit federal interference, but could only do so much to delay what most Virginians desired. With the implementation of Social Security and federal welfare assistance, Virginia's old poor relief system was dismantled. “The new system blended funds from local, state, and federal coffers and offered a combination of direct relief programs and contributory insurance schemes to several categories of the ‘deserving' poor” (p. 206-207).
Green has written a nuanced history of poor relief and welfare in Richmond. By focusing on both the policies of relief and the recipients of that largess, she manages to integrate both social and public policy history. She examines the philosophical underpinnings of relief policy, and concludes they stem from a variety of sources – from religious benevolence to a need for social control. It is this understanding of the subtleties of the subject that makes this such a fine work; Green knows that most history takes place in the gray areas in the middle, not the extremes of black and white. She is also quite good at revealing the changing temporal notions of dependency, especially as they relate to gender and work. Finally, she places a human face on those people struggling to survive in a changing economic world. Her strongest chapter, “On the Margins,” examines the world of the poor using almshouse records, and demonstrates how residents of the Almshouse and City Home were not simply passive recipients of government charity. She also shows how we “must allow for variety and contradictions, as different families evolved different strategies for wrestling with the poor-relief system to extract what they perceived to be their daily needs” (p. 177). This is a book well worth contemplating. As we struggle with redefining “welfare as we know it,” Green gives us pause to know that simplistic rhetoric and timeworn clichés have not worked in the past.
Steven Noll, University of Florida
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