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What is a Poor House?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A poor house is a facility maintained to provide shelter and assistance to people living in poverty. The term “poor house” is not in wide use today, as it has pejorative connotations which people prefer to avoid. Poor houses were especially widespread and popular during the Victorian Era, with examples existing into the mid-twentieth century, but such facilities go by other names today. They are also run very differently from historical poor houses, due to changing attitudes about the factors which contribute to poverty.

Poverty has been an issue in many human societies for centuries, and people have had various ways of dealing with it. Through the 1800s, communities were expected to care for their own poor by giving them food, alms, and other support. This support might be provided through religious organizations or taxpayer funds, depending on the region. With the rise of the Victorian Era came a change in the way that people in poverty were dealt with, and poor houses began to be established in England, spreading to other regions of the world from there.

According to the Victorians, poverty was a sign of moral weakness. People assumed that people only lived in poverty because they lacked the moral fiber to improve themselves, and poor houses were actually designed as a penal system, although they were touted as places where people in poverty could receive charity. People usually ended up in the poor house because they were sentenced to live there, rather than choosing the facility voluntarily, and many poor houses were run like prisons.

People lived in crowded dormitories, ate limited food, and were often expected to work in grueling jobs with little or no pay while in the poor house. Workhouses, a related concept, were established specifically for this purpose, and some poor house residents lived on “poor farms,” working the land in exchange for the services offered by the poor house. Poor houses were also used to house the indigent elderly when their families declined to care for them, and some people with mental illness were also sentenced to the poorhouse, rather than being given psychiatric care.

While the prevailing Victorian attitude about poverty was that people were only poor because they lacked moral strength, some Victorians spoke out against the poor house concept, and several wrote very eloquently about life in the poor house. Critics suggested that poor houses were brutal environments which failed to provide support and training to people who might have been able to become productive members of society, had they been given a chance. Eventually, the poor house system began to fade from use, with most communities today providing only temporary shelter to people in poverty, preferring to keep people in their communities with the use of public assistance which helps people find housing, pay for food, and receive job training.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By amypollick — On Jul 02, 2011

@anon178560: Perhaps so, but if they're in jail, at least they're getting three meals a day and medical treatment, as opposed to what happens to them on the streets.

However, Post no. 3 is correct. Most people in jail are criminals. And many are poor. They do not have the money to hire a high-priced attorney to plead them down to a lighter sentence.

It's also a known fact that the majority of long-term homeless people are mentally ill and non-compliant with their medication. Since the reform of the mental health laws that disgorged thousands of mentally ill people on to the streets, with no legal strictures on them to continue their medication, they went off their meds, lost their jobs and subsequently became homeless.

It is sad, but that's the truth.

By anon192798 — On Jul 02, 2011

anon, very few people are wrongly convicted. most of the people in jail are criminals. You do not go to jail because you are poor.

By anon178560 — On May 21, 2011

Jails house criminals and innocent people wrongly convicted of crimes that can't afford bail but it also is place to house the poor in this country. If you get sick, lose everything, and end up homeless it is likely you will get housed in jail. Jails are where we store poor homeless people in our modern society.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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