It Doesn't Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History

Shannon Quinn - November 15, 2022

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
This woman’s skin turned blue because of Cholera. Credit: Branch

In the Victorian Era, British Slums Were a Cesspool of Disease

In the 1800’s, many rich people began leaving central London for the surrounding suburbs. This left many parts of the city to be populated by the poor. Many of these slums were awful to live in. They had no proper sanitation, no drains, and some apartments didn’t even have windows. Since people lived without running water, they would all share the same water pump on their street. These conditions were a perfect storm when it came to the spread of disease. One of the most famous examples was the 1854 Broad Street Cholera Outbreak. This outbreak killed 616 people. Finally, a doctor named John Snow figured out that the water pump on Broad Street was the source of the Cholera germs.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
The poor are more likely to be murdered, because of financial inequality. Credit: The Times

Poor People Have Always Been More Likely to Be Murdered

There was a joint study conducted by Universities of Bristol, Sheffield and Edinburgh that concluded that even in modern times, poor people are more likely to be murdered. They studied data from 1981 to the year 2000, and concluded that people living in the bottom 10% of earners were 182% more likely to be murdered. Over half of these victims were cut with a knife or broken glass. Strangely, the rich were more likely to be murdered through poison or strangulation. Since guns are not widely available in Great Britain the way they are in the United States, gun violence was just 29% of the rich, who could actually afford to acquire a gun in the first place.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
Indentured servants worked in all sorts of fields from kitchens to manual labor. Credit: Family Tree

Many Sold Themselves into Indentured Servitude in Exchange For a Ticket to The New World

For years, indentured servitude was a popular practice in England. In the 1600’s, many people were immigrating to the “New World” to find a better life. But not everyone could afford a ticket. This is when many of the poor would become indentured servants. They signed a contract promising to work for a certain period of time for free in exchange for transportation to Virginia as well as food and shelter once they arrived. Adults worked as indentured servants for an average of four to seven years. For some reason, children were forced into labor contracts that were much longer. Unfortunately, a lot of these travelers died of disease, or were terribly mistreated by the farmers in charge of them. By the end of the seventeenth century, fewer people were willing to become indentured servants, and farmers began to use enslaved Africans.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
Children working with their mother to assemble things in a home workshop. Credit: Library of Congress

Children Were Once Kept Out of School to Work in “Home Workshops”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “As child labor expanded through the end of the 19th century, these practices diminished. The 1870 census found that 1 out of every 8 children was employed. This rate increased to more than 1 in 5 children by 1900. Between 1890 and 1910, no less than 18 percent of all children ages 10‒15 worked.” Children were forced to work in factories, farms, cotton mills, mines, and on the streets. But in some instances, kids were kept out of school by their parents to work at “Home Workshops”. Their parents would acquire goods that could be assembled, and bring them home for their kids to put together. Compared to working in a dirty factory, this was a much better option. However, obviously, it meant that these children were kept out of school, and it doomed them to continue the cycle of poverty.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
A close-up example of how houses in shantytowns were built out of scraps. Credit: Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

During the Great Depression, Thousands of People Live in Shantytowns and Hoovervilles

During the Great Depression, unemployment forced many families out of their homes. This caused a rise in shanty towns- camps surrounding major cities made up of shacks made of cardboard, tar paper, glass, and any lumber that people could find. Some of these homes were holes dug into the dirt with a makeshift roof fastened on top. Obviously, these houses were not well insulated or safe for the people who were forced to live in them. These were given the nickname “Hoovervilles” by a newspaper reporter named Charles Michelson in 1930. By the 1940’s, The New Deal helped give many unemployed Americans new jobs, and these Hoovervilles were eventually torn down.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
Black farmers sharecropping wasn’t far off from slavery. Credit: Library of Congress

Many Former Slaves Were Forced into Sharecropping

After the Civil War, many African Americans were finally freed from slavery. However, this wasn’t the end of exploiting their labor. Unfortunately, many of these former slaves were forced into “sharecropping“. This was a type of farming where a family would rent a plot of land from a landowner, and farm the land. Part of their crop was given to the landowner every year as payment. Two-thirds of these sharecroppers were actually white, while a third were black. However, many of these black former slaves were coerced by violence into a sharecropping contract with their former owners. They also had to take out loans in order to buy their own farming equipment. It put them in so much debt that it kept rolling over year after year, and they were never able to work their way out of poverty.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
This entire family was forced into a sharecropping scheme. Credit: Picturing Black History

Black Sharecroppers Were Forced Into Multiple Generations of Poverty

As we mentioned earlier, once these former slaves agreed to sharecropping, it became nearly impossible to escape poverty. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, many of these black sharecropping farmers tried to renegotiate their unfair contracts and were met with violence again. In the South, this scheme continued long after slavery was abolished. It was essentially a loophole that kept these African Americans under the thumbs of the plantation owners. And if they tried to stand up for themselves, they were met with violence. One horrific example happened in 1921, when a plantation owner named John Williams killed 11 of his black farmers, because they were planning to testify against him in court for continuing to put them into slavery-like conditions.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
The US government is to blame for African-American “ghetto” neighborhoods filled with poverty. Credit: The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Government Created “The Ghetto”

Pretty much everyone is familiar with the concept of “the ghetto”. These are predominantly black neighborhoods in cities around the United States that have an elevated level of crime and poverty. But fewer people realize that the ghettos were actually created on purpose by the US government. In the 1930’s, the Federal Housing Administration came up with a policy of “redlining”, which meant that they refused to insure the mortgages of African Americans. And it was literally written into agreements with new housing builders that they should refuse to sell homes to black people in white neighborhoods. This made it nearly impossible for black people to become homeowners, so they continued to rent without building any sort of personal wealth. This was improved with The Fair Housing Act of 1968. But there are still prejudices in the law to this very day.

How did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Poorhouses Were Designed to Punish People For Their Poverty. Erin Blakemore. History. 2018.

Poor Us: An Animated History of Poverty. The Why YouTube Channel.

Over the Hill to the Poor Farm: Rural History Almost Forgotten. Michael R. Daley Ph.D. Murray State University. 2016.

‘Begging Without Shame’: Medieval Mendicant Orders Relied on Contributions. Chausa. 2017

Finding peace in a life sold for $2. New York Post. 2013.

Poor People More Likely to be Murdered. The Guardian. 2004.

Racial Segregation and Concentrated Poverty: The History of Housing in Black America. The Root. 2021.