From Slavery to Poverty

The Racial Origins of Welfare in New York, 1840-1918

349 pages

November, 2010

ISBN: 9780814741078



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Gunja SenGupta is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of For God and Mammon: Evangelicals and Entrepreneurs, Masters and Slaves in Territorial Kansas.

All books by Gunja SenGupta

The racially charged stereotype of "welfare queen"—an allegedly promiscuous waster who uses her children as meal tickets funded by tax-payers—is a familiar icon in modern America, but as Gunja SenGupta reveals in From Slavery to Poverty, her historical roots run deep. For, SenGupta argues, the language and institutions of poor relief and reform have historically served as forums for inventing and negotiating identity.

Mining a broad array of sources on nineteenth-century New York City’s interlocking network of private benevolence and municipal relief, SenGupta shows that these institutions promoted a racialized definition of poverty and citizenship. But they also offered a framework within which working poor New Yorkers—recently freed slaves and disfranchised free blacks, Afro-Caribbean sojourners and Irish immigrants, sex workers and unemployed laborers, and mothers and children—could challenge stereotypes and offer alternative visions of community. Thus, SenGupta argues, long before the advent of the twentieth-century welfare state, the discourse of welfare in its nineteenth-century incarnation created a space to talk about community, race, and nation; about what it meant to be “American,” who belonged, and who did not. Her work provides historical context for understanding why today the notion of "welfare"—with all its derogatory “un-American” connotations—is associated not with middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, but rather with programs targeted at the poor, which are wrongly assumed to benefit primarily urban African Americans.


  • Uniting African-American history, welfare history, whiteness studies, and women’s studies, SenGupta exposes and contests the racialized nineteenth-century imagery of America as an open, competitive, individualistic, monolithic, “white Republic.”

    —The Journal of Interdisciplinary History

  • “Indeed, though race is firmly in the foreground of this analysis, the hidden strength of this book is its abundant illustration of how poor New Yorkers, of every ethnic background, used welfare institutions to their own purposes. In the difficult task of approaching welfare history from the pauper’s point of view, Gunja SenGupta has succeeded... Well worth reading for those interested in the lives of the poor and the realities of social welfare, this book also provides new insights into the history of race ideology in the nineteenth century.”

    —The Journal of American History

  • From Slavery to Poverty digs deeply into the vexed history of race and welfare in New York city. This book sparkles with fresh insights into the complicated story of black life in America's most important city.”

    —Shane White, author of Stories of Freedom in Black New York

  • “This brilliantly written and boldly argued book finds the origins of popular ideas about race and poverty in a dynamic world of immigrants, former slaves, working women, transients, the elderly, prisoners, and children. Filled with rich details, compelling stories, and unexpected and enlightening examples, From Slavery to Poverty examines the struggles of poor and dispossessed people to expose the pernicious policies and dangerous ideas that cast African Americans as perpetually and inevitably dependent. Those of us who love history will return to this book over and over.”

    —Craig Steven Wilder, author of A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn

  • “SenGupta's finely crafted study of post-slavery poverty in New York City gives a much higher level of understanding of the plight and courage of African Americans in the metropolis. By illuminating the tough economics of black life in nineteenth-century New York, she adds much-needed breadth to contemporary debate over how slavery affects the conditions of urban African Americans today.”

    —Graham Russell Gao Hodges, author of Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863

  • “SenGupta’s fascinating book is an important contribution to studies of welfare, reform, and race.”

    American Historical Review

  • "From Slavery to Poverty stands as an excellent example of research showing how marginalized people found tools of self-actualization within an oppressive socity."

    —James H. Adams, Journal of African American History

  • "From Slavery to Poverty deserves a wide readership."

    —Gunja SenGupta, Journal of American Ethnic History