Being a “pauper” simply means being “poor,” and pauperism was one of the traits that concerned early eugenicists. It was believed that this trait was largely, if not exclusively, genetically determined; therefore, in order to stop the profligate breeding of the poor and the transmission of pauperism a number of marriage prohibitions were put into place in the United States. This type of eugenic intervention never achieved the same kind of popularity in Western Canada, though the poor were still disproportionately represented among those who were subjected to eugenic ideas and practices.
Studying poor families The idea of pauperism as a transmitted trait took hold after a series of now infamous family studies. The first of these was the Jukes, a New York family who, according to eugenic scholars of the time, were a good example of hereditary criminality and poverty at work. The other family was the Kallikaks, which demonstrated a pattern of inherited feeblemindedness, sexual immorality, and insanity (among other traits). Yet another study, published in 1920, followed a Pennsylvania family through six generations—1,822 individuals—and was primarily concerned about whether members of the family were socially efficient, that is, able to bear their own weight and do something more for the welfare of their fellows.
While some early eugenicists believed that there may have been a “pauper gene” passed from generation to generation, after the turn of the 20th century pauperism, along with other socially destructive traits like sexual immorality and criminality, was more frequently characterized as a consequence of hereditary mental weakness or feeblemindedness. In spite of its being a eugenic trait, pauperism’s status as a “consequence of feeblemindedness” meant that it did not appear in any North American legislation as the grounds for eugenic sterilization.
Who can get married? Early eugenicists were not solely concerned with the health of individuals, and were also concerned with the state of society as a whole. The problem lay in the differential birth rate between the upper and lower classes of society: the morally and socially lowest classes were producing large families, and in doing so were believed to be passing on defective genes that left them predisposed to pauperism, criminality, and a host of other problems; the morally and socially upper classes, on the other hand, had relatively small families.
Eugenicists had previously turned to sterilization to prevent the unfit from reproducing, but preventing all the members in the lower classes of society from having children would have required a sterilization program to operate on an extremely large scale. Instead, some eugenicists advocated for a transformed role of the state in the regulation of marriage. By requiring that individuals be licensed to marry, and that sanctioned officers of the state perform marriage, those in power were in a position to ensure that only those marriages that served the interests of the public took place. Between 1892 and 1912 the United States saw a dramatic proliferation of laws that prohibited the marriages of many citizens on the basis that they lacked biological or hereditary fitness, as marriage came to be increasingly understood solely in terms of its procreative function. One such piece of legislation, passed in Washington in 1909, read as follows:
No woman under the age of forty-five years, or man of any age, except he marry a woman over the age of forty-five years, either of whom is a common drunkard, habitual criminal, epileptic, imbecile, feebleminded person, idiot or insane person, or person who has theretofore been afflicted with hereditary insanity, or who is afflicted with pulmonary tuberculosis in its advanced stages, or any contagious venereal disease, shall hereafter intermarry or marry any other person within this state.
While this legislation does not directly state that it is prohibited for a “pauper” to marry, it is worth noting that the category of “pauper” was thought to fall under the category of “feebleminded”. According to the Kallikak study, the “defective” traits (and the generation of “defectives” who lived in the lowest classes on the margins of society) on one side of the family could be traced to a single liaison by Martin Kallikak with a “nameless, feebleminded, girl.” This link between feeblemindedness and pauperism might explain why poorer individuals in Western Canada were disproportionately represented among individuals who were sterilized. While they were not sterilized because they were poor, their lack of money was related, in some way, to their inability to contribute in a society that had no place for them.
These laws were eventually revoked and re-written as the claims about the link between feeblemindedness, inheritance, and pauperism did not hold up to careful scrutiny. It was also noted that the so-called “problem of pauperism” was due not to the moral and biological nature of the poor, but was rather caused by the poor pay and chronic unemployment of the industrial wage system.
Generational welfare and “unfit” mothers The term “pauperism” is no longer widely used: politicians prefer to talk about “generational welfare,” a phenomenon by which welfare recipients have children who also end up on government assistance. However, as was the case with early eugenicists, politicians have chosen not to focus on social structures that may be responsible for this phenomenon, and have instead concentrated on preventing welfare recipients from reproducing. In 2008, a state representative from Louisiana proposed paying poor women $1,000 to undergo tubal ligation. The same representative has also suggested that poor men also ought to be sterilized, and has further suggested that tax incentives be given to wealthy and college educated couples in order to encourage them to have more children.
Project Prevention was founded by Barbara Harris in 1997 after she, and her husband, adopted the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth children of a drug addicted mother. Harris initially tried to have a bill passed by the California legislature that would have made it mandatory for mother to use long term birth control after giving birth to a drug addicted child; when Bill 2614 failed, she turned her energies toward the founding of a “charitable” organization that pays women $300 for long term or permanent birth control. According to the Project Prevention website, they are not only trying to prevent children from being born addicted to drugs, they are also trying to prevent children from going into the foster system, as 50% of foster youth do not complete high school, and over 50% of foster youth become juvenile delinquents. But, as with the proposed Louisiana sterilization program, the measures proposed by Project Prevention do not seek to address the features of the foster system that contribute to these outcomes, and instead focus on simply decreasing the number of foster children in the system.
Nicole Hahn Rafter, White trash: the eugenic family studies, 1877-1919 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998)
Wilhelmine E. Key, Heredity and Social Fitness: A study of differential mating in a Pennsylvania family (Washington: Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1920)
Matthew Lindsay, “Reproducing a Fit Citizenry: Dependency, Eugenics, and the Law of Marriage in the United States, 1860-1920,” Law & Social Inquiry 23, no. 3 (1998), 541-585.
Paul A. Lombardo, “Pedigree, Propaganda, and Paranoia: Family Studies in a Historical Context,” The Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions (2001), 247-255.
Baram, Marcus, 2008, “Pol Suggests Paying Poor Women to Tie Tubes,” ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=5886592&page=1
Dugdale, Richard Louis, 1877, “The Jukes”: A study in crime, pauperism, disease, and heredity. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons).
Goddard, Henry Herbert, 1913, The Kallikak Family: A study in the heredity of feeble-mindedness. (New York: The MacMillan Company).