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As orphan asylums ceased to exist in the late twentieth century, interest in them dwindled as well. Yet, from the Civil War to the Great Depression, America’s dependent children—children whose families were unable to care for them—received more aid from orphan asylums than from any other means. This important omission in the growing literature on poverty in America is addressed in Second Home.
As Timothy Hacsi shows, most children in nineteenth-century orphan asylums were “half-orphans,” children with one living parent who was unable to provide for them. The asylums spread widely and endured because different groups—churches, ethnic communities, charitable organizations, fraternal societies, and local and state governments—could adapt them to their own purposes.
In the 1890s, critics began to argue that asylums were overcrowded and impersonal. By 1909, advocates called for aid to destitute mothers, and argued that asylums should be a last resort, for short-term care only. Yet orphanages continued to care for most dependent children until the depression strained asylum budgets and federally-funded home care became more widely available. Yet some, Catholic asylums in particular, cared for poor children into the 1950s and 1960s.
At a time when the American welfare state has failed to provide for all needy children, understanding our history in this area could be an important step toward correcting that failure.