The History of the Poor in America
History 460-001

Amanda I. Seligman
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

Fall Semester 2001
Comments on Teaching This Course

Readings | Writings| Grading | Class Schedule and Assignments

This course is about the history of poor people and poverty policy in the United States, from the colonial period to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Through readings, lectures, writing, and discussion, students will consider how Americans-both the poor and the non-poor-have tried to cope with poverty. We pay close attention to how Americans thought about the causes of poverty and what sorts of efforts followed from those assumptions.

Completion of assigned readings is essential for making the most of this class. For each class session, there are assigned readings that you should complete before coming to class. The material in the readings will frequently be up for discussion during class, you are required to write journal entries about most of the readings (see below), and you will also be responsible for using what you learned from the readings on the exams.

UWM Professor Emeritus Walter Trattner's book From Poor Law to Welfare State, 6th edition, will serve as the textbook for the course; the other readings consist of scholarship and primary sources on the experiences of poverty in the United States.

Reading assignments for this course are available at the UWM bookstore and through the Golda Meir Library electronic and traditional reserve systems, available through the UWM library web page:

The books ordered for purchase have also been placed on paper reserve at the Golda Meir library, 1st floor, east wing. Instructions for use of the electronic reserve system will be distributed in class. I strongly encourage you to print out the reading assignments early in the term rather than as we go along, in case of power outages or untimely system failure. The books ordered for purchase are:

  • Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993 [1962]).
  • Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987).
  • Walter Trattner, From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America, 6th edition (New York: The Free Press, 1999).

This class requires two kinds of writing: journals and exams.

There will be three exams for this course: two midterms and a final exam. The midterms will be given in class on October 2 and November 8; the final exam will occur on December 15 at 12:30, according to UWM's schedule of examinations. The exams will consist of a combination of short answer questions and essays. The two midterm exams will each cover the immediately preceding section of the course, and the final exam will be cumulative.

The journal assignments serve several purposes: to keep you on track with the reading assignments, to give you a systematic outlet for the intellectual and emotional issues raised by the readings, and to teach me what you think about as you do the reading.

Journal mechanics
  1. You are required to make a journal entry for all assigned readings except for Trattner's From Poor Law to Welfare State. One of the primary purposes of the journal assignment is to demonstrate that you are thinking about the course readings. Each journal entry, therefore, should demonstrate familiarity with the content of the readings as well as your response to it.

  2. Each entry should be at least 250 words long; you are welcome to write more if you are so moved.

  3. For most entries, you should reflect on whatever about the assigned reading engages your interest and curiosity. Some questions that you might want to answer include: What did you find interesting about the material? How do they contribute to your understanding of the history of poverty in the United States? What questions do the readings raise but not answer? From time to time, I will announce a specific topic to be addressed in the journal. If you are completely stuck, try using the journal entry to answer the study question announced in class.

  4. For your journal, you should use a spiral-bound notebook dedicated exclusively to the journal for this class (i.e. it should not contain any class notes); I will collect the journals periodically (see schedule), so you will not be able to use the notebook for another purpose while I have them in my possession. If you would rather use a word processor for your journal, you may do so. In this case, when you turn in your journal, please staple together the entries in chronological order and submit them in a folder along with any previous submissions.

  5. Every entry should be noted by the date of the reading assignment. You should also note the name of the author and the title of the reading.

  6. Your journal notebook should have your name on it and some form of contact information, in case it is lost.

  7. Journals will be graded in two ways.
    • First, when you turn them in on required dates during the semester, I will give each a grade of v-, v, or v+, reflecting completeness and depth of engagement with the material. A journal not turned in on the day it is due will automatically receive a 0 (in this case, you are still expected to complete the journal assignment, and I will check for it at the end of the semester).
    • Second, at the end of the term, I will assign a letter grade for the entire journal, based in part on previous evaluation and in part on the journal's overall reflection of thoughtfulness about the course materials. This letter grade will then constitute 20% of your grade for the course.

Final grades for the course will be determined as follows:

20% Journals
10% Participation
70% Exams - total, as allocated below:
   20%   Midterms I
   20%   Midterm II
   30%   Final exam

Please note that 10% of your final grade will be based on the quality of your participation in class. Not only are you expected to attend each class meeting, but you are also expected to contribute to class discussions by asking questions, listening respectfully to your colleagues, and sharing your ideas. Note that your participation grade will reflect the quality of your participation rather than the absolute quantity.

Failure to complete any required components of the course may result in an F for the entire course grade.

If you need special accommodations in order to meet any of the requirements of this course, please contact me as soon as possible.

All students are expected to observe University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee standards of academic honesty. UWM's policies regarding academic integrity are available at For an excellent guide to understanding plagiarism, see

If you have any concerns about the course, want to talk about your academic progress, or are interested in knowing more about history, please come and see me in my office hours or send me email. I am also available for appointments at times other than my scheduled office hours. Graduate students: Any graduate students enrolled in this course for graduate credit should see me as soon as possible to arrange suitable alternative reading and writing assignments.



The books by Trattner, Stansell, and Harrington are available for purchase at the UWM bookstore and are held on paper reserve at the Golda Meir library. All other readings have been placed on either electronic (e) or paper reserve (p), as indicated below.

Assignment due in class
Sept. 4
European Precedents
Sept. 6
Trattner, chapter 1
Stansell, introduction and pp. 3-18
Relief in Colonial America
Sept. 11
Trattner, chapter 2
Stansell, pp. 19-37
Outdoor Relief
Sept. 13
Trattner, chapter 3
Stansell, pp. 41-75
The Poorhouse
Sept. 18
Trattner, chapter 4
Stansell, pp. 76-101
Turn in journal
Creating Separate Tracks:
Public Health and Mental Health Care

Sept. 20
Trattner, chapters 7 and 9
Note: No journal entry expected for this date.
Scientific Charity
Sept. 25
Trattner, chapter 5
Stansell, pp. 105-129 and 155-168
Freedmen's Bureau
Sept. 27
Stansell, pp. 171-221

Assignment Due in Class
Oct. 2 Midterm Exam
Tenement Housing
Oct. 4
(p) Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (New York: Dover, 1971 [1901]), chapters 1, 2, 8, 12, 14, 24, and 25.
You might wish to read the text available online at,
but you should look at the photographs in the book itself.
Turn in journal.
Saving Children in the Industrial City
Oct. 9
Trattner, chapter 6
Note: No journal entry expected for this date.
Settlement Houses
Oct. 11
Trattner, chapter 8
(e) Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House, with autobiographical notes (New York: Penguin Books, 1981 [1910]), chapter 7, "Early Undertakings at Hull House"
Children Get Their Own Systems
Oct. 16
(e) Jane Addams, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972 [1909]), chapter 3, "The Quest for Adventure"
Social Insurance
Oct. 18
Trattner, chapter 10
(e) Gordon, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890-1935 (New York: The Free Press, 1994), ch. 6
Turn in journal.
The Professionalization of Social Work
Oct. 23
Trattner, chapters 11 and 12
Note: No journal entry expected for this date.
Agricultural Depression of the 1920s
Oct. 25
Trattner, chapter 12
(e) Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, vol. 1, The Path to Power (New York: Knopf, 1982), pages 502-515, "The Sad Irons"
The Great Depression
Oct. 30

(e) Lorena A. Hickok, One-Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression, edited by Richard Lowitt and Maurine Beasley (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), pp. 44-51, 59-66, 90-92, 151-155, 219-223, 286-290, 321-326
Turn in journal.

Assignment Due in Class
The New Deal
Nov. 1
Trattner, chapter 13
Note: No journal entry expected for this date.
Alternatives Proposed during the Great Depression
Nov. 6
No assigned reading
Nov. 8 Midterm Exam
Public Housing
Nov. 13
(e) Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 29-64
Non-poverty anti-poverty measures
Nov. 15
Harrington, pp. 1-60
Aid to Families with Dependent Children
Nov. 20
(e) Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984), pp. 154-166
(e) William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 93-106
Nov. 22 Thanksgiving: No class meeting
The War on Poverty
Nov. 27
Trattner, chapter 14
Harrington, pp. 61-100
Turn in journal.
The Welfare Rights Movement
Nov. 29
Harrington, 101-138
Note: No journal entry expected for this date.

Assignment Due in Class
Poverty Policy under Nixon
Dec. 4
Trattner, chapter 15
Harrington, 139-174
The War on Welfare
Dec. 6
Trattner, chapter 16
(e) John O. Norquist, The Wealth of Cities: Revitalizing the Centers of American Life, Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1998), chapter 4 (pp. 65-82)
Guest lecturer: Pamela Fendt,UWM Center for Economic Development
Dec. 11
(e) Peter Edelman, "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done," The Atlantic Monthly vol. 279 no. 3 (March 1997), pp. 43-58
Turn in journal.
Last class meeting

Dec. 13
Trattner, chapter 17
Note: No journal entry expected for this date.
Dec. 15 12:30 p.m.: Final Exam

Syllabus prepared for archive 29 April 2002.