Family Responsibilty Under the American Poor Laws: I

Ever since the enactment of the statute quoted above, first passed in 1597 as part of the original Elizabethan Poor Law, the concept of family responsibility has been linked with the public relief of the poor. Today, more than three-and-a-half centuries later, the basic, residual program of poor relief has survived in the statutes of every American jurisdiction, and practically all the states still have family responsibility provisions based on the English model. Although some jurisdictions have abandoned the family responsibility requirement, the tendency in recent years seems to be toward strengthening the law where it exists.

In spite of their historic antecedents, and their place in the statutory framework of poor relief since colonial times, the American family responsibility laws have never been comprehensively reviewed. Yet, their importance in the administration of poor relief, or general assistance as it is now more commonly called, cannot be underestimated. As the discussion of legislative purpose will show, these laws, by authorizing court. actions in which support may be sought from responsible relatives, provide an alternative to public assistance. The assumption is that when an individual falls into need, his first recourse is to his family.