Fixing the Poor

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Fixing the Poor

Hardback
, 304 pages

10 halftones, 2 maps, 1 graph

ISBN:
9781421423722
November 2017
$54.95

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Fixing the Poor

Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century

Between 1907 and 1937, thirty-two states legalized the sterilization of more than 63,000 Americans. In Fixing the Poor, Molly Ladd-Taylor tells the story of these state-run eugenic sterilization programs. She focuses on one such program in Minnesota, where surgical sterilization was legally voluntary and administered within a progressive child welfare system.

Tracing Minnesota’s eugenics program from its conceptual origins in the 1880s to its official end in the 1970s, Ladd-Taylor argues that state sterilization policies reflected a wider variety of worldviews and political agendas than previously understood. She describes how, after 1920, people endorsed sterilization and its alternative, institutionalization, as the best way to aid dependent children without helping the "undeserving" poor. She also sheds new light on how the policy gained acceptance and why coerced sterilizations persisted long after eugenics lost its prestige. In Ladd-Taylor’s provocative study, eugenic sterilization appears less like a deliberate effort to improve the gene pool than a complicated but sadly familiar tale of troubled families, fiscal and administrative politics, and deep-felt cultural attitudes about disability, dependency, sexuality, and gender.

Drawing on institutional and medical records, court cases, newspapers, and professional journals, Ladd-Taylor reconstructs the tragic stories of the welfare-dependent, sexually delinquent, and disabled people who were labeled feebleminded and targeted for sterilization. She chronicles the routine operation of Minnesota’s three-step policy of eugenic commitment, institutionalization, and sterilization in the 1920s and 1930s and shows how surgery became the "price of freedom" from a state institution. Combining innovative political analysis with a compelling social history of those caught up in Minnesota’s welfare system, Fixing the Poor is a powerful reinterpretation of eugenic sterilization.

Molly Ladd-Taylor is a professor of history at York University. She is the author of Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890–1930 and the coeditor of "Bad" Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America.

"Ladd-Taylor persuasively shows that the emergence and maintenance of sterilization was as entangled with state bureaucracy and welfare programs as it was with eugenic concerns about biological degeneracy. This book is a detailed and textured portrait of the politics and experiences of institutionalization and sterilization in twentieth-century Minnesota."

"Despite its broad title, the book focuses solely on Minnesota and draws from information housed in the Minnesota State Archives. Ladd-Taylor, a professor of history at York University, sees this troubling past as part of Minnesota's efforts to reduce social welfare support for many vulnerable populations."

"While Fixing the Poor highlights the shifts in Minnesota's eugenics policies from the late nineteenth century through the 1970s, the book's conclusion presents a grim, though not entirely surprising, take on the continuity of thinly veiled eugenics policies in the United States. Instruments of control now take the shape of child welfare and criminal justice systems, which often brand welfare-dependent individuals as lazy, undeserving, and in some cases, unfit for parenthood. Fixing the Poor should appeal to historians of eugenics, social welfare, and disability and women's studies, but also readers who are interested in how local, "ordinary" histories can complicate and broaden our understanding of national and global trends."

"Studies the impact of efforts to "contain" and distinguish the variously and often incoherently defined problems of "delinquency", "immorality", "imbecility", "waywardness" and "feeblemindedness". Poor people, particularly women and girls, were suspected disproportionately of being the source of such conditions. Ideologically, "treatment" was framed as an issue of public health, but Ladd-Taylor shows that an even greater concern was sparing the public purse... Ladd-Taylor literally follows the money that underwrote hospitals, prisons and special schools, using the state of Minnesota as an exemplar."

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