What to Do About the Poor

“It’s 1834 in the town of Sturbridge,” announces moderator Jim O’Brien from the podium at the front of the Center Meeting House.

Actually, it’s a cool October night in 1998 at Old Sturbridge Village, but the 100 or so town meeting moderators from around Massachusetts are being asked to go back in time and imagine themselves as townspeople of the 1830s. They have just finished a meal at Bullard’s Tavern across the common, and have filed in and taken seats in the gate-box pews in the meeting house, which is lit solely by a 12-candle chandelier and five candles at the front rostrum. Having finished the day’s work at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Moderators Association, they are now asked to help 1834 Sturbridge decide what to do with its paupers.

Town moderators gather for a mock town meeting.

There’s a progressive idea that’s beginning to catch on, explains moderator O’Brien, who is dressed in a black tailcoat, a shirt with cravat, broadcloth pants, and a black top hat. The town has traditionally used the “Vendue System” for poor relief, in which the town would pay a weekly stipend to the family or individual who bid lowest at an auction for the right to take in a pauper. Now the idea of “alms houses” and “poor farms” is being advanced as a more dignified alternative for the poor. The question before the town meeting, Mr. O’Brien announces, reading from the warrant, is “to see if the town will vote to buy the land owned by the Bullock heirs.” The land for the poor farm would cost $2,500.

Mr. O’Brien prepares the moderators that this would not be run in the manner they would run a modern meeting. In the 1830s there was no Robert’s Rules of Order, he reminds them. “There are no rules,” he says. “They’re my rules.” In other words, the moderator was given great latitude to run the meeting as he wished, although “I have to be impartial. That hasn’t changed at all,” Mr. O’Brien notes. If Mr. O’Brien’s performance is accurate, there was an abruptness and dispatch then that is less common now. He brooks no long-winded speeches, interrupting members at will, pushing the debate along.

The moderators are quick to get in the spirit, raising questions about the fairness of the price and the wisdom of moving to a newfangled system of taking care of the poor, when the old one seemed to be working just fine. A certain 1990s perspective soon begins to carry the day.

“This is typical Massachusetts liberalism! No one bought my farm. I had to buy my own!” offers one moderator. “Has any thought been given to apply for a federal block grant?” asks another.

Proposing an amendment, a welfare-reform-minded moderator suggests, “If we purchase this farm, then within two years they must be off of it and working.”

“We can use our poor,” comes a reply. “If they can pass a teacher test, they can teach in our schools.”

The debate goes on for almost half an hour, but it is clear the sense of the meeting is against change. When Mr. O’Brien calls for the vote, the nays resound against the poor farm proposal.

Mr. O’Brien, an 18-year employee of Old Sturbridge Village who specializes in performances that help recreate life in a New England town of the 1830s, then recounts the actual history of Sturbridge’s decisions: Selectmen were given responsibility to be overseers of paupers in 1806; three years later the town voted against buying land for a poor farm; in 1824, a committee was formed to see what other towns were doing about their poor; and in 1834, Sturbridge town meeting voted to buy a farm and authorized the town to borrow $4,000 to pay for it.

In an interview after the moderators’ meeting, Mr. O’Brien described the different reactions he sees among groups who come to Old Sturbridge Village, where he regularly holds mock town meetings to debate the poor relief question. “I see very different attitudes, very different discussions, depending on the group,” he said. “If I was looking at a college group or a high school, I would have really expected them to buy the farm. I think at that age, generally they’re for change, they’re for progress. They’re not thinking yet about money, the financial implications of that. When I deal with elder hostels, almost every time they shoot the farm down. People who have life experience, it’s a very different feeling. I can almost judge, even before I hear people start talking . . . I can tell which way it’s going to go before we start.”

He said he wasn’t surprised by the light-hearted orneriness of the moderators, who were clearly reveling in their role reversal, playing the part of ordinary town meeting gadflies. “They were taking on the roles probably of some of the characters from their town,” he said.