A Scientific Approach to Ending Poverty, Circa 1880

Print More
Collecting rent on the Lower East Side. A visitor, probably a landlord in search of rent, enters a family's tenement. Many families were forced to break up when a primary wage earner became too sick to work.

Photo by: Collection of the New-York Historical Society

Collecting rent on the Lower East Side. A visitor, probably a landlord in search of rent, enters a family's tenement. Many families were forced to break up when a primary wage earner became too sick to work.

“The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Poverty and Homelessness in New York City” provides the first exploration of family poverty and homelessness in New York City from the city’s beginnings to the present. The excerpt below discusses the efforts in the 1880s to develop “scientific charity.” At the time, both New York and Brooklyn (then an independent city) had ended all public cash relief—what we might today call welfare. Reformers such as Josephine Shaw Lowell and Seth Low, who had supported the termination of public relief, hoped to create systems of private charity that they believed would decrease pauperism—dependence on public aid—and provide more effective support to lift families out of poverty. Lowell, who had lost both her husband and brother in the Civil War, had dedicated her life after the war to improving society. By the 1880s she had become a leading expert on poverty and homelessness. Low, a well-known social reformer, served as mayor of Brooklyn in the 1880s and would later become president of Columbia University and mayor of New York City.

Reformers including Lowell and Low did not simply want to suspend public outdoor relief; they wanted to replace it with so-called scientific charity. Public relief was impersonal, overly generous, and morally corrosive; properly organized private charity, on the other hand, provided elevation out of pauperism through, as Lowell termed it, “moral oversight for the soul.” Lowell believed that the moral failures and character flaws of the poor were outgrowths of the process of urbanization, which isolated them from contact with their social and moral betters. Organized contact with middle-class charity workers would provide the poor with not only material relief but models for a better life. Lowell compared charity to the flow of water. In rural towns water flowed naturally from mountain springs, and neighborly assistance created “a living stream of charity.” In the city a network of reservoirs and pipes was required to bring running water, and “even our love to our neighbor must be guided through organized channels, or it will lose its life giving powers and become a source of moral disease and death.”

In order to provide the “organized channels” through which charity could flow, in 1882 Lowell founded the Charity Organization Society of New York City (COS), one of several American associations that formed to imitate the success of the British charity organization movement. The COS itself did not provide significant charitable assistance beyond temporary grants of food and fuel for heat. Instead, it focused on referring applicants to those organizations that could best meet their needs. The key to the COS’s approach was to get all of the local private charities to participate and to track each family’s usage of charitable assistance. By collecting information on every charity recipient, the COS could uncover suspicious patterns and efforts to cheat the system. An earlier effort to organize charity in the city had failed because it was unable to get full participation from the city’s charities, but Lowell was persuasive. In its fifth year of operation, the organization could proudly announce that it had enlisted “nearly every important and influential relief-giving agency and nearly every self-supporting church in the city.” Even Catholic and Jewish organizations, suspicious of the motives of the scientific reformers, agreed to participate with the COS in some programs.

At the heart of scientific charity were the “friendly visitors.” The city was divided into districts, each with a committee that oversaw local work. But it was the friendly visitors—volunteers, most of them women—who actually met and formed a relationship with each family in need, made recommendations for how the family should be assisted, and followed up to check on its progress. The friendly visitor had two roles, which could conflict. First, the visitor was required to investigate requests for charity and to assess the moral quality of the family in question. She evaluated whether an applicant was “well conducted and industrious” as well as “temperate and steady” and made judgments about the family’s “general moral condition.” At the same time, however, the visitor was expected to form a personal bond with the family in need in order to provide the moral guidance that the COS believed was lacking in the lives of the poor. This “reunion between the classes,” scientific-charity theorists proposed, would have a “civilizing and healing influence.” In the end, the COS believed, it was through stubbornly developing these relationships, in “holding on with firm grip, until at last you reach the heart-strings of someone in the family,” that successful moral uplift would be achieved.

In spite of Lowell’s frequent discussion of moral uplift, the stories that the COS recounted as evidence of its success demonstrated the robust organization and resourcefulness of the society as much as its power of moral suasion. In one case a middle-aged woman “was deserted” by her husband, “whose brain had been affected by injuries” incurred during the Civil War, and left alone to care for her eleven-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter. The COS found work for the woman in domestic service, but her “inefficiency” cost her every job. Even worse, the COS explained, “the children were being ruined by the same untutored stupidity.” A long search found that the woman had “a married and well-to-do sister in another State.” The COS “induced” the sister “to care for the woman and her children in her own home, to which all were promptly emigrated.” That action by the COS saved the woman from pauperism by “transferring the burden from the community to her own kith and kin.”

When a family demonstrated greater industriousness and moral fortitude, the COS provided more direct assistance. One German family with five children was referred to the COS by an East Side missionary. The husband was ill and unable to work, and the wife had to care for their infant. While the woman was “industrious and careful,” she was also “diffident and unacquainted” with places of work. The COS “first arranged to have the infant cared for in a day-nursery,” freeing up time for the mother to work. Then, “well-paid and permanent work for the mother was found in private families.” Finally, the society found domestic work for the two daughters, aged fifteen and twelve. “In this way,” the COS reported, “the family was made self-supporting, and continue to do well.”
The most impressive aspect of the society’s work was the system of detailed records it developed. The COS created a card for each family with which it had contact. Every time a charitable organization provided aid to a family, a report went to the COS, which added the information to the card. Using this method, the COS could easily tell if a family was receiving aid from more than one organization. Furthermore, the society could provide detailed information about any particular family. By the mid-1890s the COS had records on 170,000 families and individuals.

This sophisticated system of data collection created a largely coherent web of private charities in New York. Some families accrued decades of records of relief, with thick files of correspondence between the COS and various charitable organizations. One mother with four children, for example, applied for assistance with the COS in 1896, claiming that her husband had fled to England and abandoned her. Reports on this family dated back to 1882, when she first received relief from the AICP to help her pay for her rent, food, and fuel. Over the past decade, the COS had learned much about the family. Reports included neighbors’ observations that the older children would “drink and fight” and that one daughter was “engaged” with men at night; they also noted that in 1884 the mother had refused to take work as a cleaner at the United Bank Building. The extent to which this family’s need was legitimate is difficult to discern, but from the perspective of the COS, the mother was “unworthy” of additional aid. Other applicants for aid were found “probably honest” but had “no faculty for getting on,” as the COS described one woman in 1883. She had been married twice, and the Children’s Aid Society had placed a son from her first marriage out west. Separated from her second husband—she “had heard he was dead but had no proof”—the woman was forced to provide for her young daughter, despite having little income. Reports from the Broadway Tabernacle and from All Saints’ Unitarian Church revealed that she had appealed to churches for assistance “sometimes several times a year.” In 1892 the mother and daughter moved out of their apartment without paying the previous month’s rent. Unable to locate the family, the COS closed the case.

The COS created a more thorough system of investigation and relief than the city had ever seen—more extensive than that of the private AICP or even of the system of public outdoor relief in place before the 1870s. The attitude of the society, which found the causes for poverty in the poor themselves, and the organization’s extensive investigations and records certainly led to a reduction in the charity received by many families. Some critics joked that the society should be renamed the “Organization for the Prevention of Charity.” Others objected to the secular orientation of the society, which, in an effort to reach out to those of all religions, forbade its visitors from proselytizing. The COS, however, emphasized that it was “not irreligious” but that it worked to lead those in need “back to their own church.” While moralism remained at the heart of COS visiting, the secular, scientific orientation of the organization represented an effort to confront the problem of urban poverty systematically. Groups such as the COS, the SCAA, and the State Board of Charities were not content just to ameliorate poverty but sought to create changes in policy to end pauperism. This commitment to research-based efforts to improve society would prove influential for New York City’s next generation of reformers.

Source material for this passage included Josephine Shaw Lowell, “Public Relief and Private Charity”; Joan Waugh, “Unsentimental Reformer: The Life of Josephine Shaw Lowell”; Paul Boyer, “Urban Masses and Moral Order in America”; and the reports and files of the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York.