7 Important Facts to Know about the History of Poverty

1.Attempts to help the poor can be traced back centuries

In 17th century England, many cities began to grow in size, leaving some people to experience poverty as economic and societal changes occurred. As a result, the Elizabethan poor law of 1601 was enacted. This act allowed public officials to determine who amongst the poor was worthy of aid. (DiNitto et al., 2008)

2.The Puritans helped shape welfare in the pre-U.S. era

Puritans started settling America in the 17th century. Since they were in a new and unfamiliar land, they faced many hardships. Despite their challenges, poverty was still viewed as resulting from the individual. A dual welfare system was eventually developed. This system included both government and religious involvement in assisting the poor.(DiNitto et al., 2008)

3.Poverty assistance relief varied in the 19th century

While indoor relief grew during this time, outdoor relief did not. Indoor relief took the form of poorhouses, asylums, and workhouses for example, where the poor would live or work. Outdoor relief involved assisting people in their homes, and this did not grow during this time. (DiNitto et al., 2008)

4.The Progressive Era brought about new thinking in regards to welfare reform

During this period, there was a large surge in immigration to the United States. Many immigrants felt the effects of urbanism through experiencing poverty. Programs to assist the poor were seen in the form of Charity Organization Societies and settlement houses. (DiNitto et al., 2008)

5.The Great Depression negatively impacted many families, although it brought many reforms with it

Under Roosevelt’s presidency, reforms were made to help combat the poverty Americans were facing as a result of the Great Depression. The Federal Emergency Relief Act and the Social Security Act were two such reforms.(DiNitto et al., 2008)


6.As a change in political thinking occurred, so did changes to the welfare system during the 1980’s and 1990’s

While the federal government played a large role in the welfare system during the 1960’s, under the Reagan administration, welfare was defunded, and put more so under state control. Additionally, under the Clinton administration, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program was implemented. This was seen by many as a detriment to the poor, instead of a fight against poverty. (DiNitto et al., 2008)

7.In America today, millions still feel the negative consequences of poverty

Despite all the reforms that have been made, around 3 million Americans experience homelessness annually. Poverty and homelessness may correlate with mental illness or substance abuse, and so these are issues that need to be addressed as well. (Baggett et al. 2010)

by David Montes


Baggett, T. P., O’Connell, J. J., Singer, D.E., & Rigotti, N.E. (2010). The Unmet Health Care Needs of Homeless Adults: A National Study. American Journal of Public Health, 100(7), 1326-1331.

DiNitto, D. M., & McNeece, C. A. (2008). Social Work: Issues and opportunities in a challenging profession. Lyceum Books, (3rd Edition).

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