The poor laws of the original thirteen states can best be described as reluctant public charity. Assistance was provided to some of the poor but, when provided, was strictly rationed to those local residents considered worthy of help. Visitors, strangers and nonresident poor people were not helped and were legally run out of town. Poor relief for the locals was frequently given in ways that were demeaning and destructive to families. Poor people were always expected to work, and even poor children were taken from their families by the authorities and apprenticed to others. Poor adults that could work were not helped, and were forced to work upon pain of whipping, imprisonment, and banishment. Poor people who worked fared little better. Many of the poor, working or not, were not allowed to vote. Maximum wages were set. Child labor was common, often away from the family. The working poor were held back by the laws of settlement, indenture, and slavery. As the United States was formed, its legal treatment of the poor remained anchored in the punitive mode of the English and colonial poor laws.
William P. Quigley,
Reluctant Charity: Poor Laws in the Original Thirteen States,
U. Rich. L. Rev.
Available at: http://scholarship.richmond.edu/lawreview/vol31/iss1/4