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Reflections: Great Depression keyed shift in how government dealt with the poor

An impoverished family standing outside their shanty in Oklahoma at the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
An impoverished family standing outside their shanty in Oklahoma at the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

In the April 1854 Oswego Township election, wagonwright William Hoze was elected overseer of the poor, racking up 170 votes, easily out-polling his opponents, Walter Loucks and J.W. Lilley, who got 1 and 13 votes, respectively.

Looking after poor and indigent people has been a more or less major function of local government ever since the State of Illinois was established in December 1818.

The Illinois General Assembly approved “An Act for The Relief of the Poor” in March 1819 that authorized county boards to appoint two overseers of the poor – the name of the office was later changed to poormaster – in each township in the state. The overseers were authorized to hold an auction on the first Monday in May of each year to auction off poor people’s indentures to the lowest bidders, with the indentured people’s expenses to be paid by the county for the term of one year.

In our general vicinity, Will County was one of the earliest to establish a poor farm where the poor and indigent were housed, and expected to work for their upkeep. The facility, established in 1851, was located in sections 13 and 36 of Troy Township.

Gradually, taking care of the poor became more of a township rather than county function, and the overseer of the poor became an elected township official. In Kendall County, the county board of supervisors made helping the poor strictly a township function.

Townships, of course, tried their best to persuade poor and indigent people to move elsewhere. In 1871, Oswego Township sent pauper Abe Kellogg to live with his brother, George W. Kellogg, in NaAuSay Township. George demanded NaAuSay pay Abe’s upkeep, but NaAuSay contended he was actually an Oswego pauper. In court proceedings, Oswego was eventually directed to pay for Abe’s expenses.

While Kendall County townships remained responsible for poor relief, other nearby counties also established “poor farms,” as had Will County, where the indigent could work for their keep.

In 1879, with pressure applied by the lasting effects of the Panic of 1873 – also called “The Long Depression” – Kendall County voters went to the polls to decide whether or not to establish a Kendall County poor farm.

As Kendall County Record Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank predicted on April 3: “At the election today the poor house farm will get a little support here and will likely be voted down in the county. The project of necessity must be unpopular outside of the towns of Kendall and Bristol. Still, I think that a well regulated farm would be the best and most economical method for maintaining the paupers. Many people are poor for the lack of the capacity to economize and by proper superintendence could be kept much better and cheaper than they can do it themselves. Besides, a fellow would have a home to fall back on.”

The 1879 referendum did fail but that didn’t stop other counties from taking responsibility for housing and feeding the poor. The Record reported on Jan. 1, 1880, “Grundy county is to have a new poor house – brick, 80x60, two stories high, with cellar. The contract is for the building complete at a cost of $2,974.”

By January 1886, the townships were again pushing the idea of a county poor farm. The Record reported on Jan. 27: “A petition is being circulated to the effect that the taking care of the poor should be made a county affair; a ‘poor farm’ is thereby contemplated.”

On March 3, Record Editor John R. Marshall noted that, “The County Poor Farm question is being talked up some. Our people should let well enough alone. The towns are taking good care of the poor at a nominal expense and there is no need of increasing the taxes in that direction. Keep saloons and liquor shops out of Kendall county and we shall never need a poor farm.” The issue died once again.

But it kept arising for discussion as periodic economic depressions struck the nation. Rank, writing in the June 21, 1905 Record: “The supervisors are wrestling with the question of ‘the paupers.’ Kendall county has adopted about the worst way in regard to them, confining their support to townships, as narrow a division as could be had. Unfortunate families and weaklings liable to become a town charge are to be watched from gaining a residence. At Yorkville, the river is the division line; half the place may not want certain persons from the other half to move across to their side one way or the other. At Lisbon the crossing of a street is a change from one township into another. At Millington the west end of it may have to be watched against undesirable characters from LaSalle county. This
is a handicap to such people getting along through this strenuous life.

The righteous economic system would obviate all such trouble; the paupers would be taken care of, and whoever did it be paid for at nobody’s expense.”

The township’s responsibility to assist the poor really didn’t end until the Great Depression of the 1930s. The economy was so bad that townships, and then the county, simply didn’t have the resources to alleviate suffering. By early 1932, the county board was asking for relief funds from the State of Illinois to help deal with overwhelming unemployment. Those funds, too, quickly dried up, although an infusion of federal money helped a bit. But then the feds announced that unless the state’s residents helped themselves, the cash spigot would be turned off. Under threat of forced property tax increases to pay for poor relief, voters overwhelmingly (92 percent voted yes) approved a statewide bond referendum on Nov. 8, 1932 to raise $20 million for poor relief. A second, $30 million, referendum was approved in 1934.

While townships in Illinois still have a theoretical duty to provide poor relief, officials do everything they can to shift that burden onto state and federal taxpayers. But as we celebrate Illinois’ 200th birthday this year, it’s interesting that the townships’ statutory duty to provide poor relief is a direct link to the state’s first legislature meeting in general assembly in 1819.

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