In America, the care of the poor traditionally was the responsibility of the township government. By the time Dakota Territory was established, the care of the poor, insane, and disabled was generally the responsibility of county government. The county sheriff was responsible for insuring that the person applying for poor relief was truly in need. The sheriff was also responsible for transporting the insane and disabled to the proper state asylum.
Cass County was the first in the state to establish a home for the poor. Many other counties established poor farms over the next several decades. At most of these institutions, the farm produced food for the residents as well as extra crops to sell. Ideally, residents contributed labor which helped defray the cost of their care. However, many of the residents of county poor farms were not simply poor. They were often elderly, and some were mentally or physically disabled. It was not possible for everyone to contribute labor to their own support.
Some residents of poor farms were temporary. They might live in the county home because of some misfortune. Others might be transferred to a more suitable facility such as the North Dakota Hospital for the Insane in Jamestown (today this institution is called the North Dakota State Hospital.) Still others were very old or very young and had no one to care for them.
The care of the poor was extended in 1915 to include Mother’s Pensions. While the concept of support for women with dependent children was generally well-received, cases of fraud led some people to call for a change to the law.
When North Dakota became a state, sociology was a new profession. Professional sociologists, such as Dr. John Gillette of the University of North Dakota, called for more humane treatment of the poor, the insane, and orphaned children. North Dakota’s efforts in that direction were about average for a western state. However, while the state had some concern for humane care, it did not want paupers, as they were known then, to be too comfortable. Most North Dakotans continued to believe that it was important to attach some shame to poor relief, so that no one would choose poverty and county relief over personal independence.
The number of poor in North Dakota reflected several conditions of life in this state. First, when crops failed, the number of people on poor relief rose. Many of these people would eventually return to their farms, or find other work. Second, cold winters brought many people to the county commission asking for help with winter fuel. Though records are often inadequate, it is likely, that in the 1910s, most of those receiving poor relief were given fuel for winter heat. Third, North Dakota had a large population of immigrants, and the records of poor farms show a higher percentage of immigrants among the poor than in the general population. Immigrants had often left families behind in the old country. Severing the ties of family often meant that there was no source of help in the family. In addition, immigration was extremely stressful. Those immigrants who were not able to withstand the stress often became mentally unable to care for themselves. Fourth, between 1900 and 1920, there was a strong out-migration from the countryside to the city. Many young women who moved to cities on their own and did not have families to guide and protect them, became pregnant out of wedlock. These women and their children had to turn to state and county institutions to help them.
Why is this important?The study of poor relief in North Dakota gives us insight into different ideas about what kind of society North Dakotans wanted to form. While state government wanted to promote North Dakota as a place where everyone would prosper, the reality was somewhat different. The state had to provide for those who did not fit the ideal of the hard-working, thrifty, independent farmer.