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  • Women and Welfare in the United States
  • Miriam Cohen (bio)
Gunja SenGupta. From Slavery to Poverty: The Racial Origins of Welfare in New York, 1840–1918. New York: New York University Press, 2009. xiv + 333 pp.; ill. ISBN 978-0-8147-4061-3 (cl); 978-0-8147-4107-8 (pb).
Lisa Levenstein. A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. xvi + 300 pp.; ill. ISBN 978-0-8078-3272-1 (cl); 978-0-8078-7164-5 (pb).
Marisa Chappell. The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty and Politics in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. xi + 345 pp.; ill. ISBN 978-0-8122-4204-1 (cl); 978-0-8122-2154-1 (pb).
Jane L. Collins and Victoria Mayer. Both Hands Tied: Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom of the Low-Wage Labor Market. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. xiii + 219 pp.; ill. ISBN 978-0-2261-1405-7 (cl); 978-0-2261-1406-4 (pb).

Sixteen years after President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA), which ended “welfare as we know it,” scholars can better understand the history that led to the law’s enactment as well as its effects. The books under review in this essay reaffirm both the importance of a feminist perspective for understanding the history of American welfare and the importance of race to understanding this feminist history. These studies also provide ample evidence that social justice in the twenty-first century requires public policy support for all citizens, as workers and as caregivers.

Beginning in antebellum New York City, Gunja SenGupta focuses on five institutions that exemplify the “range of charitable and reform institutions that constituted New York’s interlocking network of private benevolence and public relief” (3). By 1840, New York was a bustling city of commerce and manufacturing which boasted great wealth, a growing middle class, and, in lower Manhattan, plebian neighborhoods of immigrants and African Americans. The panic of 1837 and subsequent depression encouraged “respectable” society to confront growing poverty. Faith in the free market and the Second Great Awakening, with its emphasis on free [End Page 180] will and perfectibility, contributed to the zeal with which reformers sought to rehabilitate the poor. If poverty was the result of character flaws and not lack of jobs, reformers argued, the reformation of paupers required their institutionalization rather than direct relief. The New York Alms House added a Work House on Blackwell’s Island to employ able-bodied paupers, now segregated from the aged and infirm who were considered worthy of relief. In the vanguard of the scientific charity movement, volunteers from the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor set up an elaborate system for investigating applications for aid, separating the deserving from the undeserving, and sending them to appropriate agencies.

For antebellum New Yorkers, the problem of pauperism was intertwined with the “immigration problem” and, in particular, the large number of poor Irish. While nativists portrayed the Irish as a threat to the white republic, a more optimistic view won out among New York’s elite. By promoting work discipline and temperance, reformers believed they could help the Irish become capable of self-governance and, hence, full citizens of the republic.

African Americans were perceived differently than impoverished whites. This was expressed in the 1855 census, which used the term “color” to categorize blacks and mulattos while the Irish were described as white, like all people of European origin. According to this logic, African Americans were inherently different from whites and thus neither acculturation nor the attainment of citizenship rights was possible. Reformers’ attitude about difference, SenGupta shows, was critical to understanding the social service practices of public and private institutions throughout the nineteenth century.

Beginning in the 1840s, the Alms House segregated poor blacks from native-born and immigrant whites. Black adults were placed in the privately run Colored Home and black orphans in the Colored Orphan Asylum. The wealthy white women supervising the Colored Home approached their work on behalf of indigent blacks with great sympathy. Like many activists from “respectable” society, these...


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