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Ugly or needy

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | January 19, 2011

Many American cities have faced the quandary of how to deal with panhandlers. (This issue is sometimes confused with the problem of the homeless; some panhandlers are homeless, many are not.) Neighborhood homeowners find their presence an irritant and fear that they depress property values; shop owners suspect that they scare away customers; and tourists who encounter panhandlers in, say, San Francisco’s theater district, swear they won’t come back until the “problem is cleaned up.”

Puck magazine cartoon, 1879

Detail of Puck magazine cartoon, 1879

This is not a new problem (although it may have resurged in the last generation or so). This cartoon published in the magazine, Puck, dates from 1879. The character in the left corner, Puck, is complaining to a city official, “If you can’t remove these people from the streets [to the institutions depicted in the background] on the score of Charity, do it for Decency’s sake.”

One way that 19th-century Chicago (and other cities) tried to manage the problem was euphemistic. As Adrienne Phelps Coco describes in a recent article, the city passed an “ugly law,” trying to drive unattractive people from the public streets.

Ugly not wanted

In 1881, Chicago passed an “ugly law” that read, in part:

Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object . . . shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view under penalty of one dollar for each offense.

Professor Coco argues that, in the end, the concern was not that people were revolted by the sight of the maimed and mutilated. Nineteenth-century Americans accepted and even honored disfigured Civil War veterans; they also increasingly paid to see “freaks” on display at carnivals. The issue, Coco argues (and the Puck cartoon supports), was beggars using their injuries – or feigned injuries – to extract money from passersby.

Poor not wanted

The public was hostile to mendicants, hoboes, and the poor generally. Newspaper writers assumed that the beggars were lazy, described many as “vermin” coming to America from eastern and southern Europe, and demanded that the authorities get them off the streets. Officials argued that charity itself “along with the indiscriminate handouts given by benevolent citizens [was] the root cause of the tramp crisis.” “Pauperism grows by what it feeds on,” one agency report concluded. “If any man will not work, neither let him eat.”

elderly panhandler

Panhandler (by Pacific Pelican/flickr)

Public opinion held that even the seriously disabled should work for their food, typically at menial labor in almshouses. Those almshouses themselves were kept uninviting, less the lazy be attracted there. One report described the Chicago almshouse as surrounded by human waste because of inadequate latrines.

Indeed, for much of the 18th and 19th century, the well-heeled public was suspicious of what were called “the strolling poor” and then the train-riding poor (and in the twentieth-century, the jalopy-driving poor — the “Oakies” of the Great Depression). The general assumption was that these folks were dissolute, disreputable dependents. Some may well have been, but most were displaced — by economic hard times, agricultural disasters, and other misfortunes. One historian wrote that the ““Tramps were… the ordinary working people of the United States on the move between jobs and residences.” (See, also this history and that one.)

In practice, Chicago’s ugly law was not much enforced and was forgotten, until someone noticed that it was still on the books and the city repealed it in 1973. Coco argues that the law was not really about being ugly but about being poor. We still face the ugly issue of poverty and of pubic panhandling, but it looks like we have come some distance since the solution was to ban the unsightly poor and virtually imprison them in institutions.

(Note: Berkeley English Professor Susan Schweik, an author on The Berkeley Blog, wrote a noteworthy book on the ugly laws from the point of view of disability studies.)

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Ugly or needy

  1. A truth about our hedonist society is that politicians in both parties really haven’t cared about the poor since FDR because they really haven’t done anything to prevent threats to the poor from getting increasingly out of control.

    Even worse, today we are proving that America’s intellectual aristocracy is willing to sacrifice the poor in order to perpetuate their avarice because they aren’t doing anything to prevent threats to the poor either.

  2. In the past week I have twice come across a different sort of panhandler, the normal, middle-class looking person who is short of cash for BART. The first was a clean-cut teenage boy at Rockridge BART who looked like he was destined for a university like Cal, and the second was a woman in her early 20s who looked like she should have been out with her design firm coworkers for happy hour instead of begging for money at 16th Street in the Mission. I have also begun to notice people who likely were living a decent life not long ago who are now begging on the streets of downtown San Francisco for train or bus fare “home” or for any kind of help possible. They do not fit the typical panhandler stereotype at all. I am increasingly seeing the affects of our long recession and unemployment and it is evident that many of the newly poor are people “just like us.” It is scary to think how close many of us are to the state where we have to ask strangers for money just to survive day to day.

  3. Truly fascinating. I never gave much consideration to the thought that perhaps the view of homelessness was a combination of both ‘ugly’ and ‘poor’. It’s a definite fact that as a society we have advanced considerably from imprisoning the poor and institutionalizing them. However, on an individual level, many of us imprison the homeless mentally.

    I live in Reno NV and the homeless ‘problem’ here is immense. Our company is located close to the Reno casino’s and every day our employees are panhandled. I believe the Reno community in general has gotten so used to the homeless that the issue of “shop owners suspect that they scare away customers” has diminished for the most part. Even the casino’s in Reno seem to be more accepting, which one may think to be contradictory to their business objectives. Thank you for the read – It has been extremely thought provoking.

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