The Fundamental Institution

Poverty, Social Welfare, and Agriculture in American Poor Farms
Author: Megan Birk
People, purpose, and the "poorhouse" from the 1860s to the 1930s
Cloth – $110
Paper – $30
eBook – $19.95
Publication Date
Paperback: 04/12/2022
Cloth: 04/12/2022
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About the Book

By the early 1900s, the poor farm had become a ubiquitous part of America's social welfare system. Megan Birk's history of this foundational but forgotten institution focuses on the connection between agriculture, provisions for the disadvantaged, and the daily realities of life at poor farms. Conceived as an inexpensive way to provide care for the indigent, poor farms in fact attracted wards that ranged from abused wives and the elderly to orphans, the disabled, and disaster victims. Most people arrived unable rather than unwilling to work, some because of physical problems, others due to a lack of skills or because a changing labor market had left them behind. Birk blends the personal stories of participants with institutional histories to reveal a loose-knit system that provided a measure of care to everyone without an overarching philosophy of reform or rehabilitation.

In-depth and innovative, The Fundamental Institution offers an overdue portrait of rural social welfare in the United States.

About the Author

Megan Birk is a professor of history at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She is the author of Fostering on the Farm: Child Placement in the Rural Midwest.

Also by this author

Fostering on the Farm cover


"A well-argued book based on impressive research and organized in a set of well-constructed chapters. It is an impressive contribution to the history of American social welfare systems and to American rural life from the 1870s to 1930." --Missouri Historical Review

"This well-written and researched book is a 'must read' for anyone interested in the role that the poor farm played in welfare strategies for rural Americans." --Kansas History

"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. . . . 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." --H-Net Reviews

"The Fundamental Institution is very much an institutional history of poor farms with chapters devoted to local management and state inspections, conditions on the farms, and the role of superintendents. . . . Birk's study will be of interest to those seeking a historical understanding of social welfare." --Journal of Southern History

"This well-written and researched book is a 'must-read' for anyone interested in the role that the poor farm played in the welfare strategies for rural Americans." --Kansas History


"Informative and thoroughly researched, The Fundamental Institution tells the largely unknown story of America’s poor farms. Megan Birk argues persuasively that white rural poverty was commonplace, and poor farms were an essential part of localized public welfare systems until the 1930s. A valuable study."--Molly Ladd-Taylor, author of Fixing the Poor: Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century