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From Slavery to Poverty

From Slavery to Poverty: The Racial Origins of Welfare in New York, 1840-1918

Gunja SenGupta
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    From Slavery to Poverty
    Book Description:

    The racially charged stereotype of "welfare queen" - an allegedly promiscuous waster who uses her children as meal tickets funded by tax-payers - is a familiar icon in modern America, but as Gunja SenGupta reveals in From Slavery to Poverty, her historical roots run deep. For, SenGupta argues, the language and institutions of poor relief and reform have historically served as forums for inventing and negotiating identity.Mining a broad array of sources on nineteenth-century New York City's interlocking network of private benevolence and municipal relief, SenGupta shows that these institutions promoted a racialized definition of poverty and citizenship. But they also offered a framework within which working poor New Yorkers - recently freed slaves and disfranchised free blacks, Afro-Caribbean sojourners and Irish immigrants, sex workers and unemployed laborers, and mothers and children - could challenge stereotypes and offer alternative visions of community. Thus, SenGupta argues, long before the advent of the twentieth-century welfare state, the discourse of welfare in its nineteenth-century incarnation created a space to talk about community, race, and nation; about what it meant to be American, who belonged, and who did not. Her work provides historical context for understanding why today the notion of "welfare" - with all its derogatory un-American connotations - is associated not with middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, but rather with programs targeted at the poor, which are wrongly assumed to benefit primarily urban African Americans.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-0886-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    In August 1996, a bipartisan coalition of politicians in Congress voted to “end welfare as we know it.” Their handiwork, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), replaced income support to needy families—guaranteed since the New Deal by some version of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—with “transitional” public assistance in exchange for work. Two years later, the antiwelfare commentator Heather MacDonald invoked a familiar trope to raise the alarm against “the future downfall of welfare reform.” In a piece published online inCity Journal, the organ of the Manhattan Institute (a conservative public policy...

  6. PART I

    • 1 Subaltern Worlds in Antebellum New York
      (pp. 29-68)

      The language of welfare has long functioned as a code of race and nation. In order to understand why, we must plumb the earliest recesses of cross-cultural encounters in what Europeans called the New World. The association of whiteness with freedom and self-sufficiency on the one hand, and blackness with dependence and degradation on the other, may ultimately be traced to the coerced migration of hundreds of thousands of African workers to help build the colonies of British North America in the seventeenth century. From this history emerged a metalanguage of color that gave meaning to almost everything in our...

    • 2 The White Republic and “Workfare”: Blackwell’s Island
      (pp. 69-106)

      Like many of his Whig-Republican contemporaries, Joel Tyler Headley, sometime–associate editor of the abolitionistNew York Tribune, doubted that the most dreadful flour riot of his early adult years would have happened at all had it not been for the demagoguery of vote-grubbing politicians and their allies in the Democratic media. The year was 1837, a trying time for New Yorkers of all stripes, but particularly so for laboring men and women. In the course of the past three years, their city had weathered a cholera epidemic that took a few thousand lives, plus a great fire that ravaged...

    • 3 Not White, but Worthy: Maternalists and the “Pious Poor” of the Colored Home
      (pp. 107-128)

      In the autumn of 1839, ten benevolent women of New York City congregated in the Bond Street home of Maria Bauyer, a daughter of the first chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Jay. Mostly Quakers and evangelicals with ties to the New York Manumission Society and its decidedly conservative protégé, the New York Colonization Society, many of these women had participated in the establishment of the Colored Orphan Asylum three years earlier. Now they gathered to devise a strategy of relief for what they considered a particularly deserving constituency of impoverished black New Yorkers—namely, retired servants...

  7. PART II

    • 4 The Color of Juvenile Justice: The New York House of Refuge
      (pp. 131-169)

      New York City in the 1840s embraced within its frenetic shores the best of worlds and the worst of worlds. Within sight of splendid Broadway lay what sensationalist reporters dramatized as the wretched ambit of poverty, its features most grotesquely magnified in the notorious district of Five Points, “just back of City Hall, towards the East River.”¹ It was into this latter world of crooked streets, foul air, slouching beggars, overcrowded cellars, predatory epidemics, crime, and prostitution that a thirteen—year-old cabin boy of African descent named James Hubbard stepped, off a Canadian ship on a frosty December day in...

    • 5 Celtic Sisters, Saxon Keepers: Class, Whiteness, and the Women of the Hopper Home
      (pp. 170-204)

      The prison reformer Catharine Maria Sedgwick—a daughter of the influential Federalist lawyer and congressman Theodore Sedgwick of Stockbridge, Massachusetts—harbored immense affection and regard for a servant of her family by the name of Elizabeth Freeman. Freeman was a former slave who successfully sued for freedom in the courts of Berkshire County in 1781, with Theodore Sedgwick as her counsel, and later joined the Sedgwick household in Stockbridge. Catharine Sedgwick remembered Mumbet—the name by which Freeman was known to the family—as “Mother—my nurse—my faithful friend . . . who first received me into her arms.”...


    • 6 Black Voluntarism and American Identities: The Howard Orphanage and Industrial School
      (pp. 207-242)

      Seventeen-year-old Anne Smith harbored aspirations higher than a lifetime in domestic service. Born in New York of Virginian blacks at the turn of the twentieth century, Smith was reared in a predominantly African American community at the Howard Orphanage and Industrial School (HOIS), originally of Brooklyn, later of King’s Park, Long Island. In accordance with institutional practice, soon after Smith entered adolescence, she was placed in housework, with the Orphanage’s white treasurer in Westfield, New Jersey. Before long her mistress, Marjorie Snevily, reported that the young woman was anxious to withdraw savings from her wages—held in trust for her...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 243-248)

    American society has come nearly a full circle since the patrons and clients of benevolence in Victorian and Progressive New York argued over the meaning of race and nation within the framework of poverty policy. A tentative welfare state for the neediest among us has waxed and waned. Welfare politics have, however, remained a supple and polarizing forum for defining and contesting the gist of color and American nationalism.

    Quasi-municipal relief and reform agencies in nineteenth-century New York used the paradigms of race, dependence, and relief to articulate the meaning and boundaries of American citizenship. The Alms House Department, the...

  10. Appendix: Tables
    (pp. 249-274)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 275-324)
  12. Index
    (pp. 325-334)
  13. About the Author
    (pp. 335-335)