Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor

Government Assistance

Eponine Home

The Hospice
The Care
The Wetnurse
The Government

Charity Home
The Church
Frederic Ozanam
Government Aid
Women in Need

Women and Poverty
Living Conditions
Inside the Family
Making Ends   Meet


Charity was not imposed on the community of France. However, after the revolution, the government had roughly one half to one third more applicants applying for welfare as before. The Directory of France established Le Bureau de Bienfaisance (later named Le Bureau de Charite). It acted as a representative for the poor. This new public assistance weaned away from the Catholic Church and became a more divergent department of the administration. On the Avenue Victoria (near the Hotel-de-Ville and the hospital l'Hotel-Dieu) stood the central office of Public Assistance where mothers waited in line for hours.

The Process: For many women, the process alone to receive welfare from the government was a struggle and often too time consuming. During the time a mother made the initial request, she had to have the child's birth certificate as well as a certificate of indigence [extreme poverty in which the basic necessities of life are lacking]. A mother obtained both at the mayor's office through a process that was often slow (the start of many painstaking events). Mothers were expected to make oral and written requests which were followed by a series of interrogations lead by officials.

The Facts and Interrogation: A single mother requesting welfare had to ask for a pardon for her:

"fault which I committed involuntarily...grace for the infant and herself from God, the police,..." and the major;in that order. (Fuchs)

The interrogation was made after a mothers plead through oral and written statements were given. Every aspect of their lives were inspected by government officials. Who her family was, her morality, her need, her living arrangements, and place of employment were all questioned when authorities asked anyone who knew the woman.

What Really Went Down: This process seemed endless, more time spent on trying to receive welfare than many women had. The longer they were standing in front of Public Assistance office the longer their children were starving. Authorities claimed they treated requests within the 24-48 hours, however memoirs and accounts recall a much different story.
The Stuggle: Government officials abused mothers through the program they enacted; and mothers abused the government officials through the same way. The struggle for officials was between how they figured out who really needed assistance versus who "claimed" they needed assistance. The struggle for the mothers was often pride of admitting to their need and time consumption or how to prove they indeed needed to be helped. This struggle is what caused the chaotic program to be revised over and over again.


A female social worker for the 19th century:

As part of Public Assistance, Dame Visiteuses were enforced to "check up" on mothers who were currently receiving welfare at the time. They acted much like the social workers of today act.

"Dame visiteuses had to serve two masters: the inspectors and the general council of the department of the Seine. Many may have been more sympathetic to the mothers than the inspectors liked. . . .[they] did not notify them [the inspectors] when the mother was cohabiting and did not always suggest termination of aid when appropriate, that they acted more like charity women rather than state employees " (Fuchs)

These Dames visiteuses were hired (starting in 1877) as another inspector for the government to make sure aid was secured and used in the proper way. Many authority figures argued that since mothers were basically being paid to nurse their children like wetnurses they too had to be inspected.

[Click picture to see enlargement and discussion!]

Dame visiteuses visited the house hold of someone receiving welfare once a month. They decided whether or not the mother was deserving of the welfare she was receiving. With the controversy the male inspectors created they seemed to just be at best female "friendly intruders into the working-class women's homes and lives".