American governments have long been engaged in the support of the poor. A guide for colonial officials in North Carolina declared "The Churchwardens of every Parish shall keep Books, in which shall be registered the Names of all the Poor, the Time they were admitted, and the Occasion of it; which Books shall be produced at the Time of laying the Parish Levy, or as often as the Vestry think fit; when the Names of the Poor shall be called over, and the Reasons of their receiving Relief examined, and shall then be continued, or discharged, as the Vestry shall think fit." Likewise, while New England towns made arrangements for the destitute citizens, they were careful not to accept responsibility for newcomers from other regions. New settlers were "warned out" that they must leave town if they could not fully support themselves within one year. In a time when most people in North America were living near subsistence levels, it is understandable that local governments should want to limit their responsibilities for supporting the poor. However as the United States went on to become one of the richest nations in the world, the inclination to limit assistance to the poor has persisted. While few objected to providing aid to widows, orphans, the elderly or disabled, many frequently questioned ever supporting the "able-bodied poor."
This new encyclopedia examines these opposing traditions in America. A historical chronology and four introductory essays trace from colonial times to the present the approaches state, local, federal and tribal governments have taken to poverty. These are followed by 170 alphabetically arranged entries on specific policies, programs, laws, organizations, reformers and politicians that have addressed issues of poverty, public health and social welfare in the United States. From poorhouses and apprenticeships to labor unions and aid to dependent children, these include a wide range of social policies.Health, housing, hunger and homelessness are all well within the scope of the discussion. So too are the efforts to establish minimum wages, birth control programs, and model cities. The causes of reformers like Dorothea Dix, Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger and Upton Sinclair are examined in brief biographies. Notable legislation, from child labor laws to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, is explained. A selection of 44 primary documents gives voice to a diverse group of social critics, from Eugene Debs and Eleanor Roosevelt to Tecumseh and the Black Panthers. Considering the wide scope of the set, the Temperance Movement, the de–institutionalization of mental health patients, and the political setbacks to social programs during the Reagan era get surprisingly little coverage. A table of historical statistics on poverty and social program spending would also have been relevant. Nonetheless, this scholarly guide will be useful to libraries supporting programs in governmental affairs and public policy.