Your Immigrant Ancestors Needed Public Assistance, Too

A common refrain of those complaining about immigrants is that they are “takers” or “gaming the system.” Among Americans with their own immigrant histories, the complaint sometimes becomes “my ancestors didn’t need welfare. They worked for everything they had.” This kind of rhetoric is not only exclusionary and prejudiced, it’s also factually inaccurate.

There are several flaws with this argument. For starters, we shouldn’t be looking at the 19th century, with its sky-high mortality rates, and chronic grinding poverty as a model for today’s public policy. But even setting that aside, the claim is historically inaccurate. It’s true that the state had a much smaller role in supporting the poor before the New Deal and Great Society programs of the 20th Century. For many immigrants, including Franco Americans, religious groups provided relief to the poor. These church efforts varied from simple functions like charity through the St Vincent de Paul Society to a parallel education system, the provision of orphanages, and hospitals. Whether or not these services, funded through donations, collections and tithes from parishioners, are philosophically different from government spending funded via taxation is debatable. Regardless, prior generations of immigrants received plenty of “hand outs.”

At the more fundamental level, 19th century immigrants did benefit from the modest government funded poverty relief that was provided. In fact, they benefitted in greater proportion than-native born Americans.

Contemporaneous reports make this clear. Occasional one-off efforts by state and local governments provided assistance or relief to immigrants. Examples include the provision of French-language public schools, smallpox vaccinations, or the wholesale use of monetary incentives to settle townships like New Sweden. In part, these initiatives recognized that immigrants faced specific disadvantages – language, poor health –  and the public  cost of addressing these barriers would be more than worth the additional benefit from helping to integrate new arrivals into public life and the economy. On a more day-to-day basis, 19th century immigrants had access to the same programs for poverty relief as native-born Americans. Because immigrants then, as now, tended to face more economic hardship, they accounted for a disproportionately high share of the resources spent on these programs.

A look at the annual town reports for Brunswick, for example, demonstrates the many ways towns and cities spent money on to help destitute immigrants. In just one year preceding March 1 1876, for example, the town of Brunswick reimbursed townspeople for a series of expenses related to the care of the town’s immigrant population:

  • To C J Gilman, $2.76 “milk for French families during small pox cases”
  • To, James T Adams & Co, $267 for “supplies furnished French families during 12 cases of small pox”
  • $26.35 spent on “Railroad and steamer fare to Ireland of James Breen a blind pauper”
  • To Andrew Libby [André Labbé], $15 “toward sending Mr. Simpson, wife and seven children [a Franco-American family] to Canada”
  • To Harvey Stetson, two payments of $10 for “coffin for French woman”
  • To Andrew T Campbell, $6 for “supplies for Francis Bruno (French)”
  • To John Manard, $10 for transporting a “sick French woman to Canada.”


As these examples show, the kinds of “assistance” provided to immigrants in this period varied greatly. Some of the expenses are familiar to us – food and supplies for the sick. However, it’s also clear that towns were not above deporting immigrants who were seen to be a burden on the town. This practice may have arisen from the way poor relief operated in Maine in the 19th century. Towns were responsible for the care of their own residents and nothing more. When it could be established that a sick or destitute person in the town was legally a resident of another town, the other town would be billed for the upkeep of the poor person. If their “hometown” refused to pay, or in certain other circumstances, the overseers of the poor could decide to deport the pauper to their place of last residence. This was an inhumane and often brutal system that doubtless resulted in many unnecessary hardships – but it was applied to Americans as well as immigrants.

Shoeless Mill Workers, perhaps Lewiston, early 20th Century. Image: Maine Memory Network/USM Franco-American Collection

By the 1880s, Brunswick was providing another form of public assistance to many Franco-Americans, in the form of property tax exemptions. From 1886 to 1888, the town reported the taxes abated for the “French” population separately from other residents, and, in 1889, while not identified as such, the town’s immigrant population appears to have been listed together. These records show that the town’s Franco-American population required more tax abatements than other residents, and that the community’s use of such abatements declined rapidly over the course of those four years:


  • In 1886, “French residents” accounted for $301.40 of $440.42 in total tax abatements, or 68%
  • In 1887, the share was $213.18 of $454.09, or 47%
  • In 1888, the share was $161.84 of 409.39, or 40%
  • In 1889, I count just $71.04 attributed to Franco-American names, of a total of $431.26, or 16%


(For reference, the Franco-American population of Brunswick in this period was probably around 25%).


Many factors could be behind the declining share of tax abatements being given to Franco-Americans. The simplest is the idea that Brunswick’s Franco-Americans improved their economic standing over these years, and required less assistance. The national economy was also slowly pulling itself out of a big economic slump known as the Long Depression. Improved economic prospects may also have reduced the number of Franco-Americans who left Brunswick (for Canada or for other towns). The list of abatements for 1889 show that “moving away” was the largest reason for tax abatements among this community:


Tax Abatements for Franco-Americans, from the Town of Brunswick Annual Report, 1889. Courtesy Curtis Memorial Library, Brunswick.


The most common form of poor relief in most Maine towns in this period was the maintenance of a “poor house” or “poor farm.” These institutions supported destitute individuals and families with food and shelter, often in exchange for their labor. The poor farms, in particular, required residents to grow crops and raise livestock, which was then used to feed the farm’s residents. Surplus produce was sold for the city treasury. In many cases, this system required even elderly or sick Mainers to conduct what was often back-breaking labor. By our standards, these institutions asked a lot of individuals for whom they provided minimal assistance. Nonetheless, this minimal safety net was equally available to immigrants and native-born Americans. In the 1880 census, Lewiston’s Poor Farm enumerated 35 adults or unaccompanied children, 19 of whom were born overseas.

Biddeford Poor Farm, 1910. Image: Maine Memory Network/McArthur Public Libary

On the other side of the ledger, Franco-American families inadvertently subsidized the town’s school system. State aid for education in this period was calculated based on the number of school-aged children in the town, rather than the number of children actually attending public school. The Franco-American practice of sending their children to parochial schools, funded by the Catholic diocese, had the effect of relieving towns like Brunswick of the need to educate some children for whom they still received a state subsidy. The Brunswick School Board itself noted this phenomenon in its 1889 annual report:

 Another fact which should be considered is this that we may be called upon at any time to provide school rooms fir our large number of French scholars, most of whom now attend the parochial school of their church. We draw school money for them but have no room to instruct them if they should ask accommodation.


The school  board actually recommended the establishment of a French-language public school using the state aid and town money, and with the cooperation of the Catholic parish. They cited Augusta’s French public school as an example and noted that it would be much more efficient to do so, than maintain the status quo. At any time, the Franco-American children could enroll in the existing school system, which not only didn’t have the space to accommodate them, but “it would take so much time of the teacher to teach them to talk English as well as to read it, that it would seriously interfere with the progress of the English pupil.”

St John’s School, Brunswick, 1900. Image: Maine Memory Network/Pejepscot Historical Society

Beyond the example of individual towns like Brunswick, there’s a key source of information that shows the extent to which towns spent public funds to support immigrants in the 19th century. In 1850, 1860, and 1870, the Census Bureau conducted a “social statistics census” alongside its regular count of the population. The social statistics census collected information on a town’s finances and government. This information included the names of churches, libraries, and newspapers; taxes collected and monies spent; crime rates; and the scale of poor relief in the town. The Social Statistics Census provides us with a record for nearly every town in Maine of the number of paupers and the amount spent on poor relief over the year preceding June 1st 1870. Towns were also asked to detail the number of paupers who were (a) native-born whites (b) colored and (c) foreign.

The data collected by this census is not completely reliable. Even by 1870, the Census Bureau recognized that the poverty statistics provided in the census relief did not match official records elsewhere. Comparisons between states were complicated by the way that different states, and different census-takers, defined paupers. Adding to the unreliability of data was the ability of the census-takers to consult publications and other written records to obtain information for the social census. There was no requirement that town clerks or other officials verify the information collected.

Nonetheless, the information presented in the 1870 social statistics census for Maine clearly shows that the ranks of the state’s paupers were disproportionately comprised of immigrants. The official counts, based on the total number of paupers supported by all surveyed towns on June 1st of the census year, were as follows:


Census Year Paupers Foreign Paupers Foreign-born population as share of state population
Number Pct
1850 3,535 326 9% 5%
1860 4,618 471 10% 6%
1870 3,670 443 12% 8%


Source: Pauperism and Crime in A Compendium of the Ninth Census of the United States, 1870


These statistics show “foreign” Mainers were one and a half to two times more likely to use poverty relief than “native” Mainers. A closer look at the returns from individual towns shows an even higher use of poor relief among immigrant populations in some locations in Maine. Within nearly every one of the 20 most populous cities in Maine in 1870, the share of the town’s poor who were foreign-born far exceeded their share of the general population.


Paupers in 1869-70 Paupers on June 1, 1870 Total Population
Total Foreign Share Total Foreign Share Annual cost Total Foreign Share
Portland 322 199 62% 143 82 57% $29,804 31,643 7,012 22%
Bangor 695 457 66% 68 27 40% $13,825 18,289 3,014 16%
Lewiston 450 311 69% 25 5 20% $5,205 13,600 3,098 23%
Biddeford 64 43 67% 21 8 38% $7,139 10,282 2,742 27%
Augusta 310 150 48% 100 50 50% 7,808 451 6%
Bath 45 0% 15 9 60% $6,059 7,371 607 8%
Rockland 43 9 21% 14 7 50% $4,000 7,074 320 5%
Auburn 30 2 7% 15 1 7% $1,876 6,169 177 3%
Westbrook 15 1 7% 17 1 6% $986 6,583 764 12%
Saco 19 2 11% 23 2 9% $2,141 5,755 371 6%
Belfast 13 3 23% 8 1 13% $2,200 5,278 215 4%
Ellsworth 47 3 6% 37 3 8% $3,804 5,257 332 6%
Camden 46 1 2% 47 2 4% $3,000 4,512 64 1%
Gardiner 101 40 40% 65 14 22% $4,222 4,497 183 4%
Waterville $4,399 4,852 547 11%
Brunswick 12 1 8% 12 1 8% $2,000 4,687 539 11%
Waldoboro 12 0% 10 0% $1,334 4,174 47 1%
Old Town 29 21 72% 22 14 64% $2,945 4,529 834 18%
Calais 17 12 71% $38,000 5,944 2,386 40%
Skowhegan 32 4 13% 32 4 13% $3,120 3,893 420 11%


Source: Author’s analysis of 1870 Census data. Blanks indicate where information was not entered in the original census forms. They may or may not indicate a value of zero.



Whether at the city farm, receiving property tax abatements, or direct financial aid, the historical record is clear that even 19th century immigrants required public assistance from time to time. The anti-poverty measures available to Mainers of the period were minimal, and often inadequate, but they were open to immigrants as much as native-born Americans. To project our own prejudices back into the past is not only inaccurate, but a disservice to the people of the time. That spirit is summed up by William Newell, Mayor of Lewiston, in 1892. After acknowledging that some of the city poor were there by reason of “vice and immorality,” Newell nevertheless wrote

The epidemic of the past winter has been a fruitful source of poverty, and has entailed upon the city a largely increased expense in this department. It is not, however, the wish of our people that any person should suffer. The dictates of humanity, as well as law, demand that we should minister to all who are in need of clothing, food, medicine or shelter.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.