'Kochlift': dumping the poor?

New York's ''Kochlift'' of welfare recipients to New Jersey proves that there is nothing new under the sun in America's treatment of its poor. Shipping 1,000 homeless people out of state and out of sight is not an idea whose time has come , but an idea from the past. In another example of an old attitude, Sacramento County, Calif., recently denied some poor people welfare checks but offered them board and room in a ''poorhouse'' in return for menial work.

Sending 284 welfare families to hotels in New Jersey, where they were isolated from their former contacts and ineligible for medicare, represents a throwback to the 19th-century system of shipping the poor away from population centers to isolated institutions.

The distance between New York City and Hudson and Essex Counties in New Jersey is a modern-day parallel to the riptides of the East River, where Blackwell's Island was the dumping ground for the poor, the insane, and the criminal.

The Blackwell's Island Almshouse became the City Home for the Aged and Infirm and later the Home for Dependents, with a population as late as 1934 of 2,074 inmates. In other image-polishing name changes the island became Welfare Island, then Roosevelt Island, and the East River now represents not a barrier beyond which society can hide its failures, but a watery ambiance for desirable real estate.

Boston presents a clear picture of pushing the poor farther and farther out of sight. From 1686 to 1800 the town's almshouse was next to the Boston Common on Park Street. When the new State House was built in 1798, proper Bostonians did not want the poor nearby, and noted architect Charles Bulfinch was commissioned to design a new almshouse in the West End at the edge of town. By 1821 the town had grown, and the poor were again too close for comfort. Josiah Quincy, chairman of a committee on almshouses, reported that ''the accommodations, provided for the poor . . . are not such as comport with the honor and interests of the Town.'' A new building, named a ''house of industry, '' was built in South Boston across an arm of the harbor from downtown Boston. In the 1840s this location became unacceptable as Boston grew, and Deer Island and later other isolated harbor islands were used to house paupers. If Sacramento County continues to operate its Bannon Street poorhouse, and the present location amid railroad tracks and warehouses increases in real estate value, perhaps the county will keep moving its poor.

In the 19th century, when over half of the United States population was poor, the burden of public relief fell almost entirely on local governments. Private philanthropy, or the volunteerism touted by the Reagan administration, met some of the remaining human needs. The ''worthy'' or ''deserving'' poor were placed in almshouses, the unworthy or ''vicious and idle poor'' were sent to workhouses or even to prisons.

Shipping the poor to remote areas made poverty easy to ignore and also tended to discourage requests for help. Similarly, Sacramento's new poorhouse is part of a policy to reduce welfare expenditures. Monthly applications for local welfare dropped from 805 in November 1981 to 317 in November 1982.

When all responsibility for welfare falls on local governments, residence rules are crucial. During the 18th century Massachusetts towns began to ''warn out'' residents who might become paupers and ask for assistance. The typical warning gave families 15 days to prove sufficient income or land to support themselves or to leave town. In 1790 the Town of Easton warned 100 families, one-third of its people. The Town of Lancaster in 1791 even warned out the Honorable John Sprague, sheriff of Worcester County and a state legislator, because he had been a town resident for only 20 years.

Disputes over legal settlement, complicated by variations in the periods of time and amounts of assets required, led to many conflicts between towns over responsibility for public relief. Beginning in 1767 Massachusetts recognized statewide liability ''for the relief of the wanderer who could not claim inhabitancy in any town.'' By the 1830s there were so many ''State paupers'' that almshouses were recommended. In 1854 three were opened and quickly filled.

For a time in recent history it seemed that isolating the poor on islands or across rivers from the better-off and reliance on local charity were outmoded ideas, to be replaced by attempts to break the poverty cycle and reduce inequalities. It is to be hoped that the ''Kochlift'' and Bannon Street poorhouse are not evidence of a return to the 18th and 19th centuries. but are only short-lived aberrations from the more caring policies of the 20th century.

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