Halloween at the poor farm

How the American way of poverty has changed

By Forrest Whitman

During the last half of the 19th century and well on into this century, county poor farms existed in most Colorado counties. The Gilpin County poor farm can still be seen across from the Gilpin School as one drives along Hwy 119. It’s long been a private residence, yet the large barn and outbuildings still have a slightly institutional aspect. It’s possible to imagine a dozen or so elderly poor folks living there, perhaps helping in the fields, maybe even chopping fire wood, though some would be unable to get out of the residence at all. Society was a good deal more transparent in those days. Most everyone in the county would know who lived there and why. A few living there had lost their land, others simply couldn’t work anymore. In some cases they’d been adjudged destitute by the court. Others simply migrated there when there was no place else to go. Almost none had any family in the county. They were not anonymous, however.

Visits to the poor farm

  At most holiday seasons various civic and social groups would put on a visit to the poor farm. Halloween was no exception. Church circles or various welfare groups would cook a special meal, even don masks to entertain the destitute old folks on Halloween. Of course it would seem patronizing to modern taste. But it was an accepted part of life then. Probably the inhabitants felt looked down on, but the holiday visits must have broken the monotony. My mother told stories of visits at all the holidays to the county farm near her home. The farm was gradually being converted into a hospice facility. Her group of Methodist women would make May baskets for May Day, carve a couple of pumpkins for Halloween and bake breads and cakes for Christmas. She made special friends with one older woman and Mom was sorry to see her go when she died. The whole poor farm system was phased out shortly after the end of the Second World War. It was replaced by the modern welfare system. All in all that was probably a good thing for the dignity of the poor. Today we are once again looking for ways to assist the poor. The numbers of poor folks are definitely growing.

The modern American way of poverty

  Cruising the various web sites concerning our nation’s poor is an odd experience. There is general agreement that we have more and more families and individuals pushed below the poverty line. There the agreement ends. There are several schools of thought about how to alleviate poverty. Unlike the residents of the poor farm, today the poor have no faces. They are discussed as statistics, or sometimes as “cases.” Probably their social workers know them as persons, but the general discussion about poverty seldom gets personal.

One view of poverty describes the poor as addicted to the welfare state. These sites offer this “addiction” as justification for cutting back on food stamps and other programs for the poor. Their solution is to force the poor to get jobs. That’s increasingly unrealistic. The jobs available are usually very low paid, and even those are diminishing in number. Also, most of the really low-end jobs are being taken over by automation. People are less and less employed in agriculture, sorting on assembly lines and other low-end tasks. There simply aren’t enough low-end jobs.

Another group of writers, such as Sasha Abramsky, focus on the gaping holes in our American safety net. TANF, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, is the main tool any social worker has to aid a needy family. Yet, TANF is tough to get and often not all that helpful. California statistics are typical. There, in 2012, 22 percent of all kids lived below the poverty line, yet only three percent were in families getting TANF. The maximum a family could get was $643 monthly, but most got less than the maximum. TANF helped, obviously, but it still wasn’t enough to meet basic needs. Single men and women rarely qualified at all. They were deemed “employable” and were expected to find jobs, but the jobs aren’t always there. Abramsky thinks only the government as the “employer of last resort” can provide those needed jobs.

The employer of last resort and a North Dakota bank

  Government is the employer of last resort, but what does that mean? In North Dakota that means investment in green jobs and an investing preference for jobs open to the poor. That’s due mainly to long standing policies of the North Dakota State Bank. The oil boom is going on in that state and that helps state bank revenues. However, boom or bust, the state bank continues with its policies of helping the poor first, as it has since 1917.   The funds of most of North Dakota’s citizens and businesses are invested in the state bank and so far the option for the poor is popular in the state. The bank has an excellent record of investing in companies that employ marginalized workers and re-trainable workers. They also invest in “green industries.” Half of their profits each year are given back to the state general fund which helps lower tax burdens. Unlike other banks, a social responsibility component is carefully calibrated for each investment. The poor in North Dakota have benefited.

The examples of The North Dakota State Bank and Gen. Palmer

  Many workers are unable to support themselves. Various economists have long touted the idea of a “robin hood pool of cash” to create jobs for the poor. This would mean raising taxes on the wealthiest individuals or corporations and/or finding ways to tax the one-in-four in both groups who pay no tax. The idea of a pool of cash dedicated to help the poor continues. The North Dakota State Bank proves it can be done.

Politically creating such a “robin hood pool of cash” would seem difficult on a national level. The top 1% richest Americans are not likely to easily give up owning a third of the wealth in the country as they do now. Still, the super-rich are never a monolithic group. My favorite example is the founder of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, General William Jackson Palmer. When he sold the railroad he split the profits among all employees. The humblest part-time track helper got a share as did the vice president. The very wealthy can, sometimes, create a real “robin hood fund.”

What about the churches and the neighborhood folks?

  The old poor farms had the advantage of community involvement. Today as the poor become more anonymous, that’s more a thing of the past, or is it? Many churches do go out of their way to invite and help the poor. Some neighborhoods invite the poor to social events and so on. It may be that the poor are being seen more than before. When you’re poor in America, you depend on a very fragile safety net, but you may be less invisible than you once were.

William Jackson Palmer

Palmer often lectured about the abundance of our land. But, he always said that unless that abundance was shared no one could really prosper. We’re a long way from making that happen, but there are some optimistic signs.

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