Warning Out: Welfare in the early US

This sounds like a dry topic, doesn’t it? Well, when one reads contemporary accounts of the women and children affected by this cruel system, it rapidly becomes, instead of dry, horrifyingly real and really awful.

What was warning out? The poor, it is said, are always with us. And the poor tend to be disproportionately women and children. Mortality was high and although there were plenty of widowers, there were a significant number of widows also, many with dependent children. Women didn’t have ‘careers’; they were taught to rely on a man and everything in the culture excluded them from paid employment except for domestic chores. They worked as help or wove out of the home.  (Hence the rise of wet nursing as a profession.) So what happened if a woman fell ill? Or a young woman became pregnant out of wedlock? Or it was a bad year?

The first step the town fathers took was to c0nfirm that this family deserved help. Had the adult been born in the town? If not, she and her children were ‘warned out’ to her town of birth. It did not matter that she had left the town for a very good reason; back she went. If she was pregnant, and late in the term, the town fathers would pay for the birth and care until she could travel. (And the accounts are full of bitching about the expense!) Back she went, even if the baby’s father was still in town.

Some towns were relatively progressive for the times and tried to pay for the trip. Others not so much. A woman’s children could be snatched away and sent out to work and she might never see them again. (And the care of the kids under these circumstances was dire: see post on Orphans.)

What this charity came down to was this: The affluent men who ran the town did not want to pay for the care of anyone out of town coffers. Grudgingly, they would do so for people who they knew and whose families were long time residents, if these people were deserving. Everyone else was sent away or allowed to starve.

Does any of this sound familiar? This country has evolved in baby steps but there are some who would send us back to this.