Norway shipped out its poorest

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Norwegian authorities in the mid-1800s were so desperate to relieve taxpayers of the country’s poorest citizens that they bought one-way tickets for them to emigrate to the US. They literally shipped out the people who were the biggest burden on the rest of the society, according to a new book on emigration.

The emigration tactics were reported by newspaper Aftenposten in 1869 and picked up by author Sverre Mørkhagen in his new book on Norwegian emigration, Farvel Norge , published by Gyldendal Forlag.

Such tactics would spark an outcry today but were applauded at the time as a way of relieving a poor country of its poorest citizens.

Norwegian emigration to America was huge, with an estimated one million Norwegians leaving their country for a better life in the US. Today Norway is ranked as the world’s best place to live, but things were different 100 years ago, and especially 150 years ago.

Destitute residents of such places as Solør, Øyer in Gudbrandsdalen, Eidsskogen in Vinger, nordre and søndre Land, Hurdal and Gran in Hadeland put huge demands on local coffers. Instead of having to hand out welfare payments for generations to come, local authorities thought it best to simply send men, women and children off to America.

Alarms were raised in the Norwegian-American communities already in the US, with local Norwegian-language newspapers questioning the Norwegian authorities’ “un-Christian practice” of using America as a dumping grounds for the poor.

One Norwegian-language newspaper in Wisconsin at the time, called Fedrelandet og Emigranten , leveled harsh criticism at the authorities in Vestre Aker, now part of Oslo, for even shipping out “an idiot of a girl” and leaving her to the mercies of foreigners in a foreign land.

The Norwegian Parliament had levied a “poor tax” on local townships as early as 1845, forcing them to help the most needy. Many townships had a hard time making welfare payments, and were tempted to rid themselves of the recipients by paying their passage out of the country.

The practice is little-known in Norway today, and author Mørkhagen thinks it’s important to reveal what happened. “It tells us, unfortunately, quite a bit about the sort of community we had a century and half ago,” he told Aftenposten .