Egge on Birk, 'The Fundamental Institution: Poverty, Social Welfare, and Agriculture in American Poor Farms'

Megan Birk
Sara Egge

Megan Birk. The Fundamental Institution: Poverty, Social Welfare, and Agriculture in American Poor Farms. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2022. 300 pp. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04438-0; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08645-8

Reviewed by Sara Egge (Centre College) Published on H-Environment (July, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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According to historian Megan Birk, the poor farm served for generations as the “backbone of localized social welfare” in the United States (p. 2). She notes its absence in the histories of welfare and public relief as both unexpected and unsurprising. On the one hand, poor farms were ubiquitous county-level institutions supported by taxpayers, which made them frequent and visible objects of public attention. On the other hand, their occupants and purpose often garnered them reputations as sites of dirt, disease, and disturbance, which encouraged people to forget about them. The history of social welfare also has overlooked poor farms, focusing more often on urban workhouses or almshouses.

By centering the poor farm in a history of public relief, Birk finds that these rural institutions emerged at the intersection of social welfare and the agrarian myth. Nineteenth-century local and state officials believed that poor farms offered an ideal combination of health and agricultural work, which promised to provide food and profits for the poor. Because state policies, local governance, and staffing proficiencies differed, the conditions and expectations that defined the experiences people had within these institutions varied widely. Situating poor farms in local contexts allows Birk to showcase with precision the myriad ways people lived on poor farms, but, as she notes, this approach does not make it easy to distinguish regional differences or conduct comparative analyses.

Despite this host of disparities, Birk finds some commonalities. First, municipalities built poor farms not out of compassion but out of economic considerations. Not only did local authorities want to save money by grouping people in one location, but they also placed farms on land as an investment opportunity. Second, Birk argues that the population who used poor farms changed notably over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Twentieth-century residents more often were older white men who experienced long-term unemployment prospects rather than younger and temporarily dependent people. Third, local communities played a significant role in funding and maintaining poor farms. While financial support was critical, public oversight was instrumental in securing adequate daily care, most often through the hiring of a competent superintendent. In this way, the status of a local poor farm was a visible indication of a community’s moral and civic values. While Birk notes that some poor farms suffered from public neglect and inadequate funding, others improved over time. In some cases, competent superintendents and their families made all the difference. In other cases, state or national reformers used shame to incite change.

Birk’s main purpose is to contribute importantly to the history of social welfare, and she does so by exploring how people understood and debated ideas about aid. By focusing on the complicated reasons why people used poor farms, Birk dismantles assumptions that most aid came from charities or initiatives that required people to work. Notions that poor people were slothful, devious, or entitled led some people to believe poverty was a personal failure and ignored ample evidence of public funds providing shelter, food, health care, burial support, store credit, or even cash without a test or labor requirement. Birk contends that poor farms show that necessity, not worthiness, was the standard by which communities supported the poor.

Birk challenges scholarship that frames poor farms as intentionally demeaning, controlling, or confining. She also argues against assertions that people’s fear of the poor house sustained a labor-driven work ethic. Instead, people feared the poor farm because laboring did not keep them out of it. Accident, injury, sickness, or desertion were uncontrollable factors that took away the opportunity or ability to work. For example, Birk finds that in the 1920s, only 7 percent of poor farm residents were able-bodied. Most superintendents held low expectations about the labor they could anticipate because they knew most people there were injured, sick, or otherwise incapacitated. The lack of public health-care services meant that poor farms often served older adults as well as people with both chronic and acute medical issues or mental illness. The goal was to provide shelter, food, and some degree of comfort to people facing these issues.

Birk’s examination of poor farms focuses on people, not on relief policies or agricultural practices, and, as a result, it does less with the environmental factors that shaped life in them. Superintendents, members of their families, or hired staff fulfilled most of the labor requirements, but profits rarely met expenses. Instead, superintendents managed purchasing and budgets, negotiating with contractors or merchants with the approval of county officials. Analyzing the people on poor farms also reveals that most residents were white and native-born because white supremacist norms and policies largely excluded people of color. By the twentieth century, the population was also increasingly male and elderly. While women often benefited more from kinship networks or other forms of relief, aging men lacked these familial or social ties.

Birk structures The Fundamental Institution into eight chapters, plus an introduction and epilogue. The first three chapters detail the institutions and their origins, the people who came to use them, and the superintendents who led them. Poor farms were local institutions built on public lands and funded by public taxes, which made them visible and valuable to county officials. The next four chapters examine the experiences of different segments of the poor farm population: women (chapter 4), people with mental illness (chapter 5), elderly people (chapter 6), and people with medical illnesses (chapter 7). For each group, the poor farm emerged as the best or most practical option even though these sites never had enough nurses, doctors, social workers, or counselors.

The care offered at each poor farm varied tremendously, and Birk notes how superintendents and their staff were often ill-equipped to address or uninterested in dealing with serious medical or mental health issues. Some doctors committed heinous abuses on vulnerable people. For many staff members and county medical professionals, their greatest concern was keeping women, especially those who had mental health issues, from becoming pregnant, which demonstrated how patriarchal norms and moral judgments seeped into poor farm policies. Birk also showcases how eugenicists targeted poor farm residents for “research,” developing ideas about heredity, disability, and dependency that pressed for eugenicist policies like forced sterilization. The evidence in these chapters makes clear the precarity that poor farm residents with any sort of condition or dependency faced without state regulations, accountability, or professional ethical codes.

The number and prominence of poor farms declined during the 1930s as the financial crisis dramatically reshaped how the state administered relief. Federal New Deal programs shifted power away from local institutions, and policies like the Social Security Act increasingly supported hospitals or nursing homes rather than poor farms. Modern farming also became more intensive and expensive, which made poor farms a financial burden rather than an investment. Birk ends The Fundamental Institution by recounting the demise of these institutions, noting that a couple have lingered into the early twenty-first century. What replaced poor farms has not solved the problems of rural poverty, however, and Birk notes how, for example, elderly Americans still face abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Rural hospitals have closed at an alarming rate, and state and federal cuts to food assistance, mental health care, and other relief programs continue to make life difficult for vulnerable people. Myths about poverty as a character flaw remain embedded in public and political discourse. Birk’s examination of poor farms resituates these institutions in the history of social welfare, revealing how relief was and continues to be a fraught issue that rural Americans, social welfare advocates, and state officials have yet to untangle.

The Fundamental Institution extends the work Birk did in her first book, Fostering on the Farm: Child Placement in the Rural Midwest (2015). Both books critically examine the institutions and policies that sought to serve vulnerable rural populations. While sources about the Midwest’s poor farms feature prominently in The Fundamental Institution, the book broadens the regional approach of Fostering on the Farm to a national framework. Taken together, this scholarship is essential for anyone interested in understanding how ideas about farming and family shaped the experiences of America’s rural poor and marginalized people.

Citation: Sara Egge. Review of Birk, Megan, The Fundamental Institution: Poverty, Social Welfare, and Agriculture in American Poor Farms. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL:

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