Philadelphia’s 200-year history of disability shows the welfare reform movement’s early turn toward rationing care and punishing poor people

Charles Kingley was a widower and single father of four children. He lived in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia in 1829. He worked in the brewhouse but had difficulty providing care for his youngest child, William, who was about 5 years old and almost blind.

Barbra Sion, a 74-year-old woman from Southwark, was described by social welfare officials as “old, sickly, caring for an adopted child”.

To stay in their homes and care for loved ones, both Philadelphians sought financial support through Guardians of the Poor, elected government officials who administered local welfare programs. However, in the 1810s and 1820s these pensions became suspect in Philadelphia. Did families like the Kingleys and Sions really deserve support, or were they just pretending?

As a scholar of early American history and a historian of disability and the disabled person, I am acutely attuned to disability arguments spanning the period from the founding of the United States to the present day. While researching the everyday experiences of disabled Philadelphians in the early 19th century, I came across the records of the Guardians of the Poor in the Philadelphia Municipal Archives.

In my research, published in the Spring 2024 issue of the Journal of the Early Republic, I examine how and why Poor Guardians, along with other welfare reformers, began rationing care and banning pensions.

Guardians of the Poor

In the early 19th century, Philadelphia, like most early American cities, had a differentiated welfare state.

The Poor Guardians imposed paltry taxes on every home. They used this money to buy everyday goods such as firewood, food and clothing for the poor, and also distributed weekly pensions to families in need.

They also supported public institutions such as the Philadelphia almshouse, which provided shelter and met the basic needs of the city’s poorest residents. They also bought hospital beds in Pennsylvania where they referred poor people for medical care.

Although the workhouse and hospital were important places for treatment, many disabled households relied on the pension system. Pensioners could receive health care in their homes, provided by doctors employed by the Guardians of the Poor. If they receive additional income, they will be able to continue working and living independently.

When the original Blockley Almshouse became overcrowded, authorities opened a new facility in 1833 on the west bank of the Schuylkill River.
John T. Bowen/Library of Congress/Digital Library of the World

Growing poverty, deepening resentment

Like most cities on the East Coast in the early 19th century, Philadelphia was home to thousands of immigrants and a growing free Black community. He also experienced rising levels of unemployment and vagrancy, debts from the War of 1812 with Great Britain, and the inflation caused by the Panic of 1819.

As more people fell into poverty, more people turned to local welfare officials for support.

Meanwhile, taxpayers lamented the rising costs of social welfare, especially the pension system. Why would anyone work, they asked, if the government just hands out money? Were people really unable to work, or had they simply deceived the Guardians of the Poor? There was a common belief that fraudsters were bleeding money.

In 1817, a group of citizens called the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Public Economy initiated an investigation into this system. She sent a survey to charities and government officials asking, “What do the poor think is the cause of their poverty?”

Charities and officials reported: “In most cases the alleged cause is lack of work…(And) although it may work temporarily, the real causes are most often idleness, intemperance and illness.”

The citizens commission report stated that “colored people; lower classes of Irish emigrants; immoderates and casual laborers” were wasting taxpayers’ money.

An 1817 report listed intemperance as the leading cause of poverty among Philadelphians.
Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Public Utilities

While the committee at times highlighted the gender pay gap, high cost of living and other real challenges, its primary focus was on individual behavior and personal choices. The authors believe that poor people manage their money carelessly: they gamble, hire prostitutes and get drunk, falling into poverty.

The report triggered a series of further investigations. In 1821, a state commission was appointed to investigate the Poor Law, and in 1827 the Poor Guardians published the results of their own investigation.

They all repeated the same narrative: the wrong people were on welfare.

A huge shelter

To cure these social ills, the citizens’ committee proposed stopping the payment of pensions and placing the poor in institutions. Reformers argued that it would be much cheaper for the poor to live together, where they would be fed, clothed, and housed on a large scale.

In Philadelphia, this meant reallocating poor taxes to create the Blockley Almshouse, a 3,000-bed facility that served as an almshouse, orphanage, hospital, and almshouse on the west bank of the Schuylkill River – in an area that was then on the outskirts of the city, far from families and community of the majority of residents.

In 1902, the name of the facility was changed to Philadelphia General Hospital. It was closed in 1977 and razed to the ground shortly thereafter. Today, this place houses facilities belonging to PGH Development Corp.

As the Poor Guardian manuscript collections at the Philadelphia Municipal Archives make clear, Blockley Almshouse employed doctors to screen admissions and supposedly weed out welfare fraudsters from those who were deserving.

Sick and injured people were sent to hospital wards, where they met doctors and medical students. Students at the University of Pennsylvania made clinical rounds at the almshouse, where they performed surgeries, prepared medications, and learned how to diagnose patients.

Both disabled and able-bodied poor people were sent to the workhouse, where they performed work such as collecting oak – that is, unweaving rope into single fibers – spooling with thread, sewing clothes, or making shoes. Whatever they produced was sold to local markets to finance the institution.

Reformers assumed that most people would find the conditions in the workhouse so disgusting that they would leave and find work in the city.

Physical therapists and polio victims at the swimming pool at Philadelphia General Hospital in 1963. The hospital was formerly the Blockley Almshouse.
African American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

So-called fraudsters

It’s hard to imagine what the workhouse could provide for families like the Kingleys and the Sions. These families are just two of the 656 listed in the Register of Helpers kept by the Guardians of the Poor for 1829.

Transcribing the record book, I discovered that all 656 households on the pension rolls were home to single parents, elderly people, disabled people, or one of a combination of the above. Most of them had lived in the city for several decades.

Ironically, Blockley never turned a profit. Philadelphia continued to finance the institution with low taxes, and the facility never broke even.

The real costs were, of course, borne by those who were forcibly institutionalized, divided into wards based on gender and health, and separated from family members by a vast river.

Many lived in extreme poverty to escape the facility. In 1830, Mathew Carey, an economist and public figure in Philadelphia, complained that hundreds of Philadelphians, “gradually sunk into the gravest misery and misery – whom honorable men would shudder at the sight of the inhabitants of the workhouse, and who would actually rather die than go there” – deserved pension support.

The change in welfare rules – to instead fund pensions and finance institutions – has acted as a net to catch and punish the economically dependent. Welfare reformers may have turned their attention to employers, businesses, rental costs, or other systemic factors that cause poverty. Instead, they focused on alleged scammers who didn’t actually exist.