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Pauper Fiction in Economic Science: "Paupers in Almshouses" and the Odd Fit of Oliver Twist


  • Stephen Ziliak


The almshouse dominated the thinking about poverty and the poor during America's period of industrialization and its greatest economic downturns. Yet economists had surprisingly little to say about the facts of almshouse demography, and what they have written has been a rather bad fiction when seen in contrast with American novels. The main object of the paper is to delineate typical characters and characteristics of almshouses in America, and to examine the plausibility of various literary characterizations in light of the facts. The data certainly suggest new stories about paupers in American history: economists, and even the new social historians, have gotten it wrong. Between the Civil War and the Great Depression, the typical pauper living in an almshouse was not Oliver Twist (as many believe). He was not the Shiftless Man of the classical imagination (as Malthusians and Benthamites believe). The typical pauper of an American almshouse was plural. Instructive examples in American literature include Lennie, of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men ; Denver, of Toni Morrison's Beloved ; Mrs. Thomson, of Edward Eggleston's The Hoosier School-Master ; and Forrest Gump, of Winston Groom's Forrest Gump .

Suggested Citation

  • Stephen Ziliak, 2002. "Pauper Fiction in Economic Science: "Paupers in Almshouses" and the Odd Fit of Oliver Twist," Review of Social Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 60(2), pages 159-181.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:rsocec:v:60:y:2002:i:2:p:159-181
    DOI: 10.1080/00346760210146622

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Lancaster,Tony, 1992. "The Econometric Analysis of Transition Data," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521437899.
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    Cited by:

    1. Price Fishback & Samuel Allen & Jonathan Fox & Brendan Livingston, 2010. "A Patchwork Safety Net: A Survey Of Cliometric Studies Of Income Maintenance Programs In The United States In The First Half Of The Twentieth Century," Journal of Economic Surveys, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 24(5), pages 895-940, December.


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