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Almost Worthy: The Poor, Paupers, and the Science of Charity in America, 1877-1917

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In the 1880s, social reform leaders warned that the "unworthy" poor were taking charitable relief intended for the truly deserving. Armed with statistics and confused notions of evolution, these "scientific charity" reformers founded organizations intent on limiting access to relief by the most morally, biologically, and economically unfit. Brent Ruswick examines a prominent national organization for scientific social reform and poor relief in Indianapolis in order to understand how these new theories of poverty gave birth to new programs to assist the poor.

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1 Introduction: Big Moll and the Science of Scientific Charity

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In June 1881 a council of concerned Indiana citizens filed a petition with the Board of County Commissioners of Marion County, asking that they investigate the rampant abuse and negligence rumored to be infesting the Marion County Poorhouse. Thomas A. Hendricks, a former Indiana governor, U.S. senator, vice presidential running mate to Samuel Tilden, and later vice president to Grover Cleveland, headed the petitioning council. Their case rested on four contentions: that the poorhouse overseers did not differentiate between the different types of people residing in their facility, that their negligence and improper training had resulted in abuse of the inmates, that the poorhouse was part of the local Republican machine and coerced its residents to vote the party ticket, and that biology and statistics proved that the poorhouse’s system perpetuated pauperism, or willful dependence upon private charity and public welfare.

In spite of concerns voiced to the board by the Reverend Oscar C. McCulloch, a member of the committee that wrote the petition, that the inmates feared “they will be thrown in the dungeon” of the poorhouse if they offered critical testimony, several residents chose to share their experiences.1 Their remarks brought forth sordid examples of neglect, especially of beatings, solitary imprisonment in the cellar, rancid food and drink, as well as inadequate ventilation, heating, blanketing, medical care, and other injustices. Ed Akins testified that “he had been given the diabetes from drinking a peculiar kind of tea” offered to him by the steward, Dr. Culbertson. With the approval of Peter Wright, a farmer who with his wife and daughter supervised the institution, more a poor farm than poorhouse, Culberson then refused to provide the necessary medicine to Akins.2 Samuel Churchwell recounted how his two-year-old child had been separated from its mother, left so underclothed during winter that “its legs had been frozen,” starved to the point of being unable to recognize its parents upon being returned to them, then caught a cold and died.3 A newborn died when, allegedly, the professionally inexperienced Dr. Culbertson (whose legal record already included a conviction for assault and battery) waited two days before attending to its illness. Reports suggested that other than to receive beatings or solitary confinement, the insane residents warranted even less attention than the infants.4

 

2 “Armies of Vice”: Evolution, Heredity, and the Pauper Menace

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In the late 1870s, the pauper became a threat not only to the nation’s economic and moral health but to its biological health as well. Americans learned of Darwinian biology and the various social implications that commentators drew from the “struggle for existence” at the same moment that economic depression threw more people deeper into that struggle. Chronic, intergenerational dependence could easily be explained as the consequence of charitable relief obstructing the natural course of evolution by unnaturally protecting humanity’s weakest members and allowing them to perpetuate that weakness, instead of strengthening them to better face life’s struggles. Proponents of scientific charity soon adopted and expanded this analysis, announcing that they had found proof that some and perhaps most pauperism was hereditary. Children born to pauper parents suffered a hereditary predisposition to pauperism. Without intervention, the filth and depravity of their environment almost certainly would activate that predisposition, from which they could not escape.

 

3 Friendly Visitors or Scientific Investigators? Befriending and Measuring the Poor

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The Uncertain Authority of the Friendly Visitors

Through daily encounters with the needy in dozens of North American cities from Vancouver to Atlanta, volunteers of the scientific charity movement investigated, registered, classified, and sometimes aided the poor. Far removed from the annual gatherings of leading reformers and academics at the National Conference of Charities and Correction, the efforts of COS investigators and the “friendly visitors” kept the movement running. Visitors were at once to befriend the poor, supervise their moral development with an eye especially toward matters of finances and cleanliness, and evaluate their worthiness for relief so that the local COS could fulfill its mission of aiding only the worthy poor. Contrary to the visitors’ historical anonymity today, leading members regarded visiting as the single most important component of the scientific charity movement, since it ideally put the scientific theories of pauperism and principles of scientific investigation espoused by reformers into action, via personal engagements that crossed class lines. As Haverford College professor of sociology and social work and NCCC stalwart Frank Dekker Watson explained, “Where there are the largest number of volunteers coming into firsthand and constant touch with the disadvantaged groups, there you are likely to have a more intelligent interest in the poor and the causes of poverty.”1

 

4 Opposition, Depression, and the Rejection of Pauperism

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Scientific charity’s leaders directed almost as much scorn at other charitable institutions as they did at the paupers who supposedly benefited from those institutions’ misguided generosity. They advertised scientific charity as a corrective for the ill-conceived and poorly executed work of the entrenched charities that engaged in indiscriminate, unscientific, and counterproductive almsgiving. Belying the effusive overtures of friendship and camaraderie with more established charities, scientific charity’s advocates spoke in stark terms of the old and the new in a manner that assumed that the public could not help but accept the self-evident correctness of their new methods, even though topics like distinguishing the worthy from the unworthy, renewing social bonds, and improving the suspect behaviors of the poor had been of interest to charitable reformers for decades. Although charity organization often succeeded at bringing Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish charities into cooperation, religious tensions also regularly surfaced, since many leading authors tended to be religiously liberal or unorthodox Protestants who wrote critically of the misguided application of biblical enjoinders to aid the poor. Protestant charities often were suspicious of scientific charity’s avowed secularism. Catholic charities worried that the often overwhelmingly Protestant orientation of the COS’s leadership and of the charities cooperating with the COS might make it a Trojan horse for assimilation and evangelism. Churches in general and Catholic ones in particular were reluctant to turn over lists of their poor to an outside source. It also did not help that in New York City, Josephine Shaw Lowell and fellow scientific charity stalwart Homer Folks led the fight to curtail state support for Catholic charities under the auspices that it promoted indiscriminate outdoor relief.1 While some cities, like Indianapolis, enjoyed support from or even were founded by the highest social circles of the city, in New York City and elsewhere the same social fragmentation that motivated the growth of scientific charity also ensured it would not find broad-based support from the highest rungs of the philanthropic class, who were themselves no longer homogeneous and might prefer any of several charitable approaches.2

 

5 “I See No Terrible Army”: Environmental Reform and Radicalism in the Scientific Charity Movement

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On 18 May 1891, a gravely ill Oscar McCulloch released his final and definitive statement on scientific charity and poverty, “The True Spirit of Charity Organization.” The moving prose expressed an almost complete abandonment of his earlier positions regarding biology and pauperism. The man who had helped launch the scientific charity movement and inspired the eugenics movement by comparing paupers to parasites and warning of “armies of vice” now wrote:

I see no terrible army of pauperism, but a sorrowful crowd of men, women and children. I propose to speak of the spirit of charity organization. It is not a war against anybody. It is not an attack against any armed battalions. It is the spirit of love entering this world with the eye of pity and the voice of hope. It sees in men and women, despairing, disfigured as they may be, . . . simple fragments of humanity. They show the incompleteness of men, the partial losses of life. It is, then, simply a question of organization, of the best method for the restoration of every one. . . . Therefore, I say, we look upon men, women and children, whom we call paupers, or now distinguish into paupers and poor, pitifully, but hopefully; for not one but may be brought back by persistent effort. . . . Always try again. It is never too late. There is always a chance for a man or a woman.1

 

6 The Potentially Normal Poor: Professional Social Work, Psychology, and the End of Scientific Charity

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In the late 1890s and early 1900s, influential leaders of the scientific charity movement repudiated their initial premise that most poverty originated in character defects and shied away from the more draconian approaches suggested from that premise. Reformulating scientific charity, they adopted a more lenient and environmental view of poverty that emphasized economic and social justice for the poor and elevated societal causes of poverty to a status equal to or above personal defects. The change of direction breathed new life into an embattled movement, as demonstrated in the establishment of so many new charity organization societies, changes in nomenclature and categorization, the liberalization of relief policies, and growth of political influence.

Among the rank and file of the movement, however, similar changes are more difficult to detect. In areas where the Indianapolis COS’s work was not warped by the gravitational pull of McCulloch’s personality—the system of friendly visiting and investigation, and the society members’ work during the 1893 depression and 1907 panic—scientific charity did not bear much resemblance to the scientifically informed and potentially progressive project that McCulloch envisioned. While the 1890s brought some changes in nomenclature and relief decisions at the Indianapolis COS, the statements made by COS members, reports of the friendly visitors, and the COS’s statistical data suggest volunteers deviated far less from the original intent of scientific charity: to control pauperism and instruct the poor. Lay members furthermore seem not to have shared the charity organization leaders’ interest in a scientific analysis of poverty, either in the form of expression it took in the 1880s, where leaders emphasized repressive treatment of the paupers, or in the early 1900s, when the same scientific values informed their more liberal critique. If the introduction of training courses designed to provide friendly visitors with a scientific perspective toward poverty had any effect on attitudes or relief decisions, there is little evidence of it in the records of the friendly visitors and investigators.

 

Epilogue

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When asked what my historical study of scientific charity organizers and their struggle to end poverty can teach us about the problem of poverty today, I prefer to demur. My reluctance to connect the dots between past and present tends to disappoint those undergraduate students who begin each semester by eagerly telling me that the value of studying history is that it teaches us lessons to help us avoid the mistakes of the past. Almost as frequently, they tell me that history shows us the stepping-stones to the present, generally with the unstated assumptions that everything was a stepping-stone and that the present is a very good thing. But when I think about how proponents of scientific charity organization pursued the incredibly difficult challenges of understanding and ending poverty and chronic dependence, I find myself wondering if we learned any lessons from their mistakes—or even what the lessons were that we ought to have learned. While I see places where scientific charity helped to pave the way to our current thinking about poverty, I am more impressed by the number of dead ends and doubtful that the stepping-stones did in fact lead anywhere good.

 

Appendix 1. Course Syllabus, Alexander Johnson: Study Class in Social Science in the Department of Charity

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• Is there a Social Science, or Sociology? (Cf. Spencer, “The Study of Sociology,” especially Chapter 2.) Can we hope for a department of “Philanthropics”? (Cf. Warner, “Charities.”) (Johns Hopkins Series of Studies, pp. 1, 2.)

• Science and Common Knowledge. (Cf. Spencer, “First Principles,” sections 5 and 37.)

• The Scientific Method—Induction—Deduction—Verification. (Cf. Huxley, “Introductory Science Primer,” section 11.)

• Scientific Terminology—Progress of a science as indicated by the copiousness and accuracy of its terms—Inexactness of terms of Sociology.

• Theory of Definitions—Difficulty of Definitions of Social Science.

• Definitions of Charity. (Cf. 1 Cor. XIII; Acts of 43rd Elizabeth, Chap. 4; List of Sections of National Conference of Charities; Publications of London C.O.S. [Poor Law v. Charity] Modern Usage.)

• Charity as a Generic Term—Definition for use of present Study.

 

Appendix 2. Course Syllabus, Mrs. S. E. Tenney: The Class for Study of the Friendly Visitor’s Work

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• Session 1: Charity,—definitions, outlines, terminology.

• Session 2: What should I do for one who must have food or fuel or clothing and cannot earn them?

• Session 3: What should I do for a case of sickness?

• Session 4: What should I do for one who is in the distress of poverty, and is able and willing to work? What should I do for one who is in the distress of poverty, and is able, but not willing to work?

• Session 5: What are the objects which I should most endeavor to realize through industrial education and relief in work?

• Session 6: The friendly visitor’s special opportunity.

• Session 7 and 8: How can I help to improve the home and home influences?

• Session 9: How can I best apply direct effort to aid the right structure of character?

• Session 10: How can workers in the service of charity best aid each other?

• Session 11: How, and how far, should I discriminate between the worthy and the unworthy?

• Session 12: The recognition of success.

 

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