Poor Relief, 1816–1900

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POOR RELIEF, 1816–1900

Before the Civil War, most poor relief efforts in the United States had their roots in traditional English poor laws dating from the late sixteenth century. These efforts were primarily guided by state laws, and relief was performed primarily at the state and local levels of government.

These state laws, along with the U.S. Constitution's Tenth Amendment ["The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people"] meant that responsibility for providing relief for the poor rested not on any federal authority, nor even explicitly on state governments, but rather on local ones or more commonly, on private charities or individuals themselves. The poor relied mainly on individual philanthropy, local public and private institutions (primarily churches during this period), and their own extended families. This localized social safety net was highly personal for the poor at this time, as the relief network was localized and familiar, with the relationships between those in need and those providing assistance being most critical in determining the quality, duration, and effectiveness of such assistance.

During the Civil War the capability for local assistance had all but disappeared as resources in cities and towns, especially in the South, were often stretched to the breaking point. There was little, if any, help available for the destitute. As the war continued to claim casualties, both actual lives and disabling injuries, many politicians in Washington, D.C. began pushing for military pensions for their constituents. American military pensions had first been granted to veterans of the Revolutionary War to recognize their service and contributions, but the Civil War Pension Acts that arose from that war went far beyond any earlier measures, and they caused lasting changes in the American social fabric.

The Union Congress passed the first Civil War Pension Act in 1862, and by the end of the war Pension Acts were passed that granted aid not only to those veterans permanently disabled by wounds received in battle, but also for widows and dependent children of soldiers who had died while in federal service. Long after the war ended Pension Acts continued to be passed, becoming more and more liberal with respect to who was eligible to receive pensions. Before the last Pension Act referring to Civil War veterans was passed, even old age was considered a viable disability. By 1883 the Pension Bureau had become one of the largest agencies of the federal government, dispensing nearly $100 million, almost one-fourth of the country's annual revenues.

For Southern veterans the outcome was less promising. The federal government refused to pay pensions to soldiers who had served in the Confederacy, so the burden of providing relief for these veterans fell on the individual Southern states. In 1867, Alabama and North Carolina were the first Southern states to award pensions. It was 1879 before Georgia became the first Southern state to award a pension to widows. Although most Southern states eventually adopted some form of pension program, such payments were never remotely on a par with those received by Union veterans. Eventually, at the close of the nineteenth century, the federal government extended veterans benefits to all soldiers of both sides, but for many Southerners this was too late.

In 1890 the federal government extended pension eligibility to any veteran who, for any reason, was unable to support himself by manual labor. This helped to transform the traditional pension for military disability into an old-age pension meant to reward veterans and relieve them of poverty.

The Civil War and its relief measures fostered a systematic public policy for dealing with poor relief. The stigma that had long been attached to receiving aid was greatly reduced; the federal government had assumed a role that had earlier been deemed a state or local role; and a new sense of social accountability for veterans as well as the poor and the elderly had been instilled in the country. It set the tone so that even those not associated with military service would later benefit from the effects of the Civil War Pension Acts.

David Sloan and

Michael W. Hail


Bremner, Robert H. From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States. New York: University Press, 1964.

Fitzpatrick, Michael F. "Payback for Broken Soldiers." Civil War Times. (December, 2002) 38–.

Lens, Sidney. America's Enduring Paradox: A History of the Richest Nation's Union War. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1971

Lowell, Josephine Shaw. Public Relief and Private Charity. (1884). Reprinted New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1971.

See also:Civil War Veterans.