IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this article

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

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: Access to full text is restricted to subscribers.

    As the access to this document is restricted, you may want to search for a different version of it.

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Baron, James N & Hannan, Michael T, 1994. "The Impact of Economics on Contemporary Sociology," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 32(3), pages 1111-1146, September.
    2. Emery N. Castle, 1998. "A Conceptual Framework for the Study of Rural Places," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 80(3), pages 621-631.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    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.


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:taf:rsocec:v:60:y:2002:i:2:p:159-181. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Chris Longhurst). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    We have no references for this item. You can help adding them by using this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.