Poverty and Degeneracy

return to Themes list

Until late in the 19th century, the poor were cared for in their own communities by relatives, churches, and private charities. By the turn of the 20th century, large-scale public welfare programs and institutions were replacing local charity. Isolated within these often-bleak institutions, the poor and the handicapped were easily derided as a burden to society. The eugenicists blamed poverty on bad genes and were quick to calculate the costs of maintaining the "socially inadequate" in public institutions.

Many of the eugenicist's ideas about poverty came from cacogenics: the deterioration of a genetic stock over time. The sociologist Richard Dugdale based his classic study, The Jukes (1877), on a clan of 700 criminals, prostitutes, and paupers descended from "Margaret, the Mother of Criminals." Dugdale believed that bad environment caused their degeneracy and could be reversed over time.

After reading The Jukes, Oscar McCulloch, a Congregationalist minister and charity reformer, discovered a similar group of "hereditary paupers" in Indianapolis. His Tribe of Ishmael was named after an extended family of illiterate farmers from Pennsylvania and Kentucky who migrated across Indiana during the mid-1800s. After the Civil War, they settled in Indianapolis, where they worked as ash- and junkmen, picking over the municipal trash site.

A.H. Estabrook, of the Eugenics Record Office, resurveyed the Jukes (1915) and the Ishmaelites (1923), and found continued evidence of hereditary feebleminedness and other dysgenic traits. The Jukes and Ishmaelites joined the Kallikaks and Nams as examples of eugenical family studies that were widely taught to social workers and college students during the 1920s and 1930s.

Few scholars today support the notion that poverty and vagrancy are associated with defective heredity. We now recognize that the reasons for failure to succeed in society are many and complex. Where the eugenicists saw the inheritance of bad genes, we now see a vicious cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity.

return to Themes list