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
An angry crowd getting ready to brand Huguenot John Leclerc during the 16th century persecutions. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

During Medieval Times, Quitting Your Job Meant Getting Branded on the Forehead

In the 1300’s, after The Black Death, so many people died of the disease that there was a massive labor shortage. Workers had the advantage, and were able to demand higher wages for their work. Even though this was one of the best times to find a job, there were still people who were unemployed. In the Ordinance and Statute of Laborers, the King of England forbade anyone from giving assistance to “idle beggars”. These were able-bodied unemployed people who were seen as being simply lazy, and undeserving of any charity whatsoever. In 1360, King Edward III decreed that if any man tried to quit his job, he could be captured by his employer and branded with the letter “F” on his forehead for “falsity”.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
Mendicant monks traveled around preaching and begging for their basic needs. Credit: Hypotheses

In Medieval Europe, Monks Competed With The Poor By Begging

If begging in the streets wasn’t already hard enough, the difficulty was compounded by the fact that many Christian monks chose a life or poverty as a way to honor God. In the early 13th Century, society saw a rise in mendicant orders. (Not to be confused with the monastic orders!) Members of the mendicant orders preached the Gospel by moving from town to town. Rather than living in self-contained monasteries, these mendicant monks begged for alms after they were done preaching. It was their motto to “take nothing for the journey, neither knapsack, nor purse, nor bread, nor money nor walking stick.” They believed that in doing this, they were copying what Jesus Christ did when he was alive. However, many members of the church believed this way of life was actually sinful or heretical.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
Beggars could be handicapped or insane. But sturdy beggars were punished. Credit: Alamy

In the 1500’s, Unemployment Was Punishable by Death

In English society, it was totally acceptable for people with disabilities and mental illnesses to be unemployed, because they had no other options. If they were seen begging on the streets, it was fine. A Justice of the Peace could actually give a disabled person a license to unemployed. However, there were people who would beg simply because they were unemployed. These people were labeled as a “sturdy beggar” or a “sturdy vagabond”. But in 1536, the Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars was enacted into law. The first offense was two years in prison, as well as the letter “V” branded on their body, labeling them a Vagabonde. If they were caught wandering the streets without a job a second time, they were sentenced to death. During the reign of King Henry VIII, 72,000 people were executed for being unemployed.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
Queen Mary I wanted the poor to be registered and wear badges to identify themselves. Credit: English History

Queen Mary I Forced the Poor to Wear Badges

Continuing with the Tudor Poor Laws, a few changes were made in the 1552 and 1555 Poor Acts. The first suggestion was the “collection of alms”, which was money collected for the benefit of helping the poor. However, since they had so much trouble with “sturdy beggars” in the past, they needed a way to distinguish the people who truly “deserved” help. During the reign of Queen Mary I, she made it a requirement that all poor people needed to register themselves and wear a badge on their clothing that identified themselves as being an “impotent, aged, or needy persons”. As you can imagine, this was incredibly embarrassing to wear a badge of poverty, and it was used to humiliate people who were in need.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
Men were crammed together sleeping on the floor of poorhouses. Credit: History

Poorhouses Punished People For Being Poor

Poorhouses were first introduced to England in the 17th Century. Long before Social Security, Medicaid, and Section 8 Housing, poorhouses served as a place for homeless and unemployed people to have a place to work, eat, and sleep. However, as charitable as this may seem, it was a truly awful life. People were forced into manual labor jobs like crushing rocks, bones, making bricks, spinning clothing, and more. These buildings were often unsanitary and infested with rats and bugs. All of this was actually done on purpose to make being poor as unattractive as possible. The idea was that if poorhouses were truly awful, it would motivate people to find a job and stay out of the workhouse. Of course, there were many people- especially children- who didn’t have a choice but to stay there.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
A depiction of what it was like to live in a woman’s workhouse. Credit: History

People Entering a Workhouse Had to Swear an Oath That They Were Truly Desperate

When entering a workhouse, people had to agree to an oath “swearing to their lack of worldly goods and to their need for assistance.” This oath gave the poorhouse full control over what they ate, the clothes they wore, and how they acted on a daily basis. Sometimes, even those “deserving” of aid were ordered to go to the workhouse. In 1874, a man named David Jenkins was ordered to go to the workhouse with his wife, even though they were in their 70’s, and too old to work. And yet for some reason, the charity they received from their local Parish was stopped. Most poorhouses disappeared after the Great Depression, when the government got more involved with giving aid to unemployed people. However, there was a poorhouse in Texas that didn’t close down until the 1970s.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
The very first “warning out of town” happened in the Plymouth Colony in 1654. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Poor Travelers Were Legally Kicked Out of Towns By “Warning Out”

If you can’t find a job in one city, it would make sense to move to another. Vagabonds would travel from one place to another looking for work. However, many townspeople in colonial New England didn’t like these outsiders…Especially if they failed to find a job. Each municipality only had so much money set aside for poor relief. And many townspeople didn’t want to spend those resources on an outsider. This started the concept of “Warning Out”. It was a process of literally exiling people from town, and forcing them to leave. An elected committee of “selectmen” were chosen to decide who was deserving of aid, and who was not. Warning Out was common in the 1600’s to 1700’s. But in 1817, the state of Vermont decided to make “warning out” illegal, and other states soon followed.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
Sometimes, entire poor families were auctioned off to the lowest bidder. Credit: Timeline

The “Vendue” System Allowed Poor People to be Auctioned Off

For a time, there was a system in place called “vendue” where poor people could be auctioned off like property. One example was documented in Massachusetts in 1786. A woman named Mary Degresha could not financially take care of herself. She was auctioned off to the lowest bidder, who promised to take a payment of 6 dollars per week from the town poor relief in exchange for taking care of her food and shelter. These “vendue” agreements also guaranteed that the winner of the auction would receive at least one year of free labor. Tragically, single women who were poor and auctioned off by vendue were often taken away from their children, who were essentially sold out to apprenticeships.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
The Sangamon County Poor Farm picnic. Credit: Sangamon County History

In Rural Areas, People Worked on the Poor Farm

Earlier on this list, we already mentioned how people were forced into working at a poorhouse. In rural areas where there were no factories, people would work on the “Poor Farm” instead during the 19th and early 20th centuries. These poor farms were typically run by the local government, and they employed civil servants to oversee the running of the farm. Compared to a workhouse, poor farms were more self-sustaining in terms of cost. Residents would farm the land and grow their own food. And whatever profit was left from selling excess crops would go into paying for their other needs like food and shelter. Poor Farms also had medical facilities, housing, and anything the poor may need to take care of themselves. In some facilities, they separated people with mental illnesses and handicaps from, say, people with a criminal record who were unemployable.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
A group of young boys in a Victorian workhouse. Credit: Historic UK

Workhouses Were Full of Child Labor

Sadly, children were forced into labor at these workhouses just like adults. This could happen for any number of reasons. If a man was unemployed and sent to a workhouse, his entire family had to go, too. The children were separated from the adults, and forced to work in their own section. Of course, there were also many orphans in these workhouses that had little to no hope of escaping. By 1839, nearly half of the workhouse population was children. If the child was under 7 years old, they were allowed to live in the female section with their mothers. The conditions these children lived in were horrible. In 1838, a physician visited the workhouse in Whitechapel and reported that the children were skinny, pale, and not allowed to go outside for any fresh air or exercise.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
The famous scene from Oliver Twist. “Please sir may I have some more?” Credit: The British Library

Children in Workhouses Were Physically Abused

Aside from their dirty and poor working conditions, children in workhouses were often victims of corporal punishment. The Poor Law Commissioners tried to put regulations in place protecting children from too much abuse. But even in the new rules, hitting children was still allowed under certain circumstances. In 1838, a letter was written to The Times from Bath reporting an incident when an 8-year-old boy was beaten for three days straight after complaining that he was unjustly beaten. A man named Henry Morton Stanley grew up in a poor house, and would later go on to become a writer. He testified that one of his friends, Willie Roberts, was literally beaten to death by the workhouse schoolmaster. Another incident involved a woman called Nurse Gillespie, who would use “systematic cruelty” on children by whipping them with stinging nettles and forcing them to kneel on hot water pipes.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
The Richmond Tramp House is still standing as a museum today. Credit: Historical Marker Database

Tramp Houses Provided Shelter Just For One Night

By the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, vagabonds or “tramps” were no longer being kicked out of towns. They were accepted as being a reality of life with men moving from town to town looking for work. There was an uptick of traveling “tramps” due to an increase in railroads throughout the United States. This began secret lodgings called “Tramp Houses”, which were very tiny one-room shacks. They only had a bed and a heater to help keep a traveler warm for one night before they moved on to their next location. Usually, these tramp houses were a secret. It wasn’t published at all, because the town didn’t want their citizens to know that it was hiding these migrants and giving them a free place to stay.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
The tragic true story of one woman who sold her kids for just $2 each. Credit: NY Post

The Poor Were Forced to Sell Their Children for $2

One of the most horrific consequences of poverty is when parents are forced to sell their children. This still happens around the world today. But tragedies like this were still possible, even in the United States. There is a famous photo from 1948 of a poor couple Mr. and Mrs. Ray Chalifoux from Chicago were forced to sell her children. They were being evicted from their apartment. With no place to live and no income to take care of their children, they made the tragic decision to sell their kids. A sign reads, “4 children for sale. Inquire within.” The children were sold for just $2 each. With modern inflation, that’s still less than $25 each. Each of the children were sent to different families across the country, being spread hundreds of miles away from one another.

It Doesn’t Get Harder than the Lives of the Poorest People in History
G. F. Watts, “Found Drowned” (1848-1850. Credit: Hyper Allergic

Sex Workers, or “Fallen Women” Were Shamed For Trying to Earn a Living

During the 1800’s, single women had few options when it came to finding work. Life in workhouses was dirty and dangerous. And working in a factory would often mean hard labor with long excruciating hours. One of the “better” options was to become a sex worker. However, society looked down harshly on these women, calling them “fallen women”. As in- they have lost their innocence and have fallen from the grace of God. Charles Dickens was fascinated with fallen women, and even invested in Urania Cottage, a place that was meant to help these women learn household skills. However, in order to gain access to Urania Cottage, these women were interviewed by Charles Dickens and forced to tell their whole life story as to why they turned to a life of crime. He would later go on to use the stories for characters in his books.

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.

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