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Explaining the Rise in Antebellum Pauperism: New Evidence


  • Lynne L. Kiesling
  • Robert A. Margo


The 1850s witnessed one of the earliest American history. During the decade the proportion of individuals receiving public assistance -- increased from 5.8 in 1850 to 10.2 in 1860, an increase of 76 percent. Previous attempts to explain the increase in antebellum pauperism have been hampered by the available published data, which are too aggregated to be of much use. This paper explores the determinants of antebellum pauperism using previously unexploited archival data drawn from the manuscript censuses of social statistics. These records provided detailed evidence on the incidence of pauperism at the county level. We find that about half of the increase in pauperism can be attributed to falling real wages during the decade. Contributing factors were increased immigration and urbanization.

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  • Lynne L. Kiesling & Robert A. Margo, 1996. "Explaining the Rise in Antebellum Pauperism: New Evidence," NBER Historical Working Papers 0092, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberhi:0092
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Robert A. Margo, 1992. "Wages and Prices during the Antebellum Period: A Survey and New Evidence," NBER Chapters,in: American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, pages 173-216 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Komlos, John, 1987. "The Height and Weight of West Point Cadets: Dietary Change in Antebellum America," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 47(04), pages 897-927, December.
    3. Kiesling, L. Lynne, 1996. "Institutional Choice Matters: The Poor Law and Implicit Labor Contracts in Victorian Lancashire," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 33(1), pages 65-85, January.
    4. Margo, Robert A. & Steckel, Richard H., 1983. "Heights of Native-Born Whites During the Antebellum Period," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 43(01), pages 167-174, March.
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    JEL classification:

    • N31 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - U.S.; Canada: Pre-1913


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