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From Slavery to Poverty: The Racial Origins of Welfare in New York, 1840–1918 (review)
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From Slavery to Poverty: The Racial Origins of Welfare in New York, 1840–1918. By Gunja SenGupta (New York, New York University Press, 2009), 335 pp. $48.00

Scanning and scaling wonderfully rich operational records of charitable and reform institutions representing the range of New York City’s network of private and public poor relief from the 1840s to about 1918, SenGupta examines the social construction of pauperism after the state’s general emancipation of slaves in 1827. She tracks blacks’ scramble for the economic self-sufficiency deemed essential to republican citizenship, alongside the scramble of European immigrants who made Gotham a proverbial melting pot. Her focus falls on those who failed, whose own resources and kindred self-help proved insufficient to meet their needs; she complements that focus with a view of mostly middle-class policymakers and staff who decided who deserved to receive what relief in what forms and under what conditions.

From organizational annual reports, meeting minutes, and correspondence, as well as government census data, press clippings, and promotional literature, SenGupta excavates multilayered human stories. Reading case files, institutional promotional materials, and other records [End Page 309] as cultural texts, she re-creates client biographies as narratives that make relief practices personal. Her forty-nine tables offer comparative demographic profiles to substantiate her racial typology of pauperism in nineteenth-century New York. She identifies who the poor were and explains what it meant to be on relief administered amid competing conceptions that careened from benevolence to a moralism more intent on reforming recipients than on supplying charity.

SenGupta moves from antebellum New York’s “subaltern worlds” to the color of juvenile justice and lastly to black voluntarism. Throughout, she examines the institutional logic of relief offered in varying categories to the poor of various types. In her view, the discourse and dynamics of poor relief in material practices, public proclamations, and symbolic constructions created and negotiated identity for the poor as individuals and as communities. New York’s resulting welfare system perceived and processed blacks differently from whites, whom it instructed to segregate their own racial identities. Poor relief thus served during a contentious era as a means to integrate indeterminate European immigrants as whites into a unified civic community that excluded blacks.

SenGupta deploys a bevy of theories to approach the discourse on welfare as a shorthand for defining race and nation. Subaltern agency largely informs her bottom-up reading of how the poor in general and blacks in particular bent the welfare system to their needs as they confronted a cultural and racial hegemony that sought to marginalize them. The white poor learned to use the system to advance their privileges, and the black poor learned to use the system to advance a pluralism that challenged the power of whiteness. Uniting African-American history, welfare history, whiteness studies, and women’s studies, SenGupta exposes and contests the racialized nineteenth-century imagery of America as an open, competitive, individualistic, monolithic, “white Republic.”

Thomas J. Davis
Arizona State University, Tempe