Tricia A. Barbagallo
In July 1799, the Common Council produced an official list of the poor living in Albany. The list came about after a two-month investigation of the city poor relief program, which was considered mismanaged. Mayor Philip Van Rensselaer launched the inquiry during his first few months in office as he assessed city expenditures. City leaders hoped to cut costs by reevaluating budget items. The city experienced a deficit because of housing and water shortages, damages sustained from a major fire, and the after effects of an epidemic, flood, and two failed public improvement projects. The common council believed the three city poormasters were too generous in aiding poor people and assisting non-Albany residents.
To better manage poor relief, the common council appointed a committee to review the program and report inefficiencies. Committee members audited poormaster's account books and interviewed each indigent person. Two months later, the common council terminated the fifteen-year-old city welfare program and instead enacted "An Ordinance to Better Maintain the Poor." Under the new plan, overseers of the poor were removed from managing money and determining eligibility. City leaders took control of distributing money, required needy people to apply directly to the common council for aid, and approved who was eligible for assistance on a case-by-case basis. The common council made an official list of the poor and prohibited poormasters from assisting needy people who were not on the official list.
Forty-nine Albany residents qualified to receive municipal assistance. Their names were listed on the "Permanent Poor" list and they received bi-annual payments from their ward poormaster. The money was to be used to pay rent, taxes, and to buy food, clothing, and other necessities. Those who were rejected, might petition for relief to the Albany Dutch church.Common Council Minutes, July 8, 1799 -   "Resolved that the several persons named in the following list to be entered in the Minutes of this Board as the Permanent Poor of this City and that the Poor Masters allow for their maintenance at the several rates heretofore specified until this Board shall make farther orders in the Remarks to wit"
The common council amended the poor list annually by adding paupers and removing people it felt did not qualify for assistance. By 1802, the council noted a significant increase in poor expenditures and sought a more cost-effective method for relief. In 1803, it approved plans for a poorhouse to cut expenditures. That decision followed other major cities where the poor were contained and put to work toward cutting the costs of housing and food. Albany's abandoned military hospital was converted into the city's first municipal almshouse. An overseer of the poor was appointed to manage the facility and to assist the needy. All public aid ceased with the construction of the poorhouse. Indigent people were required to live in the almshouse or they would not receive public assistance!
[ SB notes: ] The Albany Dutch church had a long history of providing support for the needy. Its poor relief initiative has not yet been studied comprehensively. However, the church deacon's accounts from the seventeenth century have been re-translated, re- transcribed, and presented by Janny Venema. Those records provide much material on the church's benevolence.
The Albany census for 1810 included a listing under "Harmanus A. Wendell" - whose household had been configured on the first two city censuses as well. However, in 1810, the entry also included the notation "poorhouse" and broke down the fifty-eight residents of the location by age and gender. We hope to follow up on that entry.
This section on "Poverty in Albany" is part of a larger work by the author. The list has been derived from the manuscript Common Council Minutes held on microfilm in the CAP offices.
first posted 8/8/01; last revised 1/8/14