Poor Relief: from Support to Disciplining

In the 19th century, poverty was largely regarded as being self-inflicted and as a sign of weak character. Those who became poor but were considered fit for work were stigmatized and shunned. Structural causes of poverty remained ignored.

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In Switzerland, assisting people unable to support themselves was traditionally one of the duties incumbent on the municipalities. The principle of support in one’s hometown held firm until well into the 20th century. People in need from other municipalities were sent back to their home municipalities by means of ‘pauper carts’. This made it more difficult for the poor to find employment as they could only receive support in their home municipalities. The increasing legal rules on poverty increased the influence of the cantons on poor relief, while the powers of the federal state remained limited. The introduction of the ‘alcohol tenth’ in 1887 was the first time federal funding became available to the cantons to counter alcoholism or inadequate upbringing – both of which were considered significant causes of poverty at the time.

In particular, the elderly, women and children were threatened by poverty. A moralizing view of poverty was prevalent among the bourgeois elite: only the ‘deserving’ poor, those unable to work as a result of age, youth, family obligations, illness or disability, were to receive support. Whereas poor people capable of working were accused of improvidence, prodigality or lacking work ethic. Structural causes of poverty were ignored. Although mass poverty decreased after 1850, economic slumps continued to be a threat to people. 

In an effort to address poverty, the cantons and municipalities expanded elementary schools and adapted the system of relief to new social emergencies (handing over tasks to private associations and later replacing the hometown principle with one that supported the poor in their place of residence). Likewise, they promoted emigration, set up poorhouses and reformatories for the destitute elderly and children or took repressive measures (such as workhouses, marriage prohibitions and suspension of voting rights), which further stigmatized already peripheral groups in society.

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Head Anne-Lise, Schnegg Brigitte (ed.) (1989), Armut in der Schweiz (17.–20. Jh.), Zürich; Lippuner Sabine (2005), Bessern und Verwahren: Die Praxis der administrativen Versorgung von „Liederlichen“ und „Arbeitsscheuen“ in der thurgauischen Zwangsarbeitsanstalt Kalchrain (19. und frühes 20. Jahrhundert), Frauenfeld.