The Subtle Problems of Charity

"Of the various struggles which a decade of residence in a settlement implies, none have made a more definite impression on my mind than the incredibly painful difficulties which involve both giver and recipient when one person asks charitable aid of another."

The charity visitor is ashamed to take this narrow point of view, for she knows that it is not altogether fair. She is reminded of a college friend of here, who told her that she was not going to allow her literary husband to write unworthy pot-boilers, for the sake of earning a living. "I insist that we shall live within my own income; that he shall not publish until he is ready, and can give his genuine message." The charity visitor recalls what she has heard of another acquaintance who urged her husband to decline a lucrative position as a railroad attorney, because she wished him to be free to take municipal positions and handle public questions without the inevitable suspicion which attaches itself in a corrupt city to a corporation attorney. The action of these two women had seemed noble to her, but they merely lived on lesser incomes. In the case of the workingman's wife, she faced living on no income at all, or on the precarious income which she might be able to get together. She sees that this third woman has made the greatest sacrifice, and she is utterly unwilling to condemn her while praising the friends of her own social position. She realizes, of course, that the situation is changed, by the fact that the third family need charity while the other two do not; but, after all, they have not asked for it, and their plight was only discovered through an accident to one of the children. The charity visitor has been taught that her mission is to preserve the finest traits to be found in her visited family, and she shrieks from the thought of convincing the wife that her husband is worthless, and she suspects that she might turn all this beautiful devotion into complaining drudgery. To be sure, she could give up visiting the family altogether, but she has become much interested in the progress of the crippled child, who eagerly anticipates her visits, and she also suspects that she will never know many finer women than the mother. She is unwilling, therefore, to give up the friendship, and goes on, bearing her perplexities as best she may.

The first impulse of our charity visitor is to be somewhat severe with her shiftless family for spending money on pleasures and indulging their children out of all proportion to their means. The poor family which receives beans and coal from the county, and pays for a bicycle on the installment place, is not unknown to any of us. But as the growth of juvenile crime becomes gradually understood, and as the danger of giving no legitimate and organized pleasure to the child becomes clearer, we remember that primitive man had games long before he cared for a house or for regular meals. There are certain boys in many city neighborhoods who form themselves into little gangs with leaders somewhat more intrepid than the rest. Their favorite performance is to break into an untenanted house, to knock off the faucets and cut the lead pipe, which they sell to the nearest junk dealer. With the money thus procured they buy beer, which they drink in little freebooters' groups sitting in an alley. From beginning to end they have the excitement of knowing that they may be seen and caught by the "coppers," and at times they are quite breathless with suspense. In motive and execution it is not the least unlike the practice of country boys who go forth in squads to set traps for rabbits or to round up a coon. It is characterized by a pure spirit of adventure, and the vicious training really begins when they are arrested, or when an older boy undertakes to guide them into further excitements.

From the very beginning the most enticing and exciting experiences which they have seen have been connected with crime. The policeman embodies all the majesty of successful law and established government in his brass buttons and dazzlingly equipped patrol wagon. The boy who has been arrested comes back more or lees a hero, with a tale to tell of the interior recesses of the mysterious police station. The earliest public excitement the child remembers is divided between the rattling fire-engines, "the time these was a fire in the next block," and the patrol wagon "the time the drunkest lady in our street was arrested." In the first year of their settlement the Hull House residents took fifty kindergarten children to Lincoln Park, only to be grieved by their apathetic interest in trees and flowers. On the return an omnibusful of tired and sleepy children were galvanized into sudden life because a patrol wagon rattled by. Eager little heads popped out of the windows full of questioning. "Was it a man or a woman?" "How many policemen inside?" and eager little tongues began to tell experiences of arrests which baby eyes had witnessed.

The excitement of a chase, the chances of competition, and the love of a fight are all centred in the outward display of crime. The parent who receives charitable aid, and yet provides pleasures for his child and is willing to indulge him in his play, is blindly doing one of the wisest things possible; and no one is more eager for playgrounds and vacation schools than the charity visitor whose experience has brought her to this point of view.

The charity visitor has her own ideas concerning the administration of justice. To her mind, the courts can do no wrong. To be sure she has never come in contact with them, end she is shocked as she gradually discovers that this courts are used for justice or revenge exactly according to the ethical development of the plaintiff. Almost the only court which the very poor use, certainly the only one to which they voluntarily appeal, is the police court; and they hasten to that often, not in order to secure justice, but for the much more primitive desire for revenge. The penalties for swearing out a warrant if the arrested person fails to be proved guilty are so inadequate that they ore practically never enforced hence there is no restraint to the impulse against fulfilling the threats of "I'll have you arrested," and "I'll take the law to you," which are such quick and common retorts in neighborhood quarrels.

An old lady takes care of her five grandchildren, three of them headstrong boys with whom she has no end of trouble. Her only sources of revenue are the precarious earnings of the two older boys and the rent of two thirds of a house, which she owns and partly occupies She is an affectionate and devoted grandmother, but she balances her over-indulgence by administering an occasional good scolding to her children and her tenants. One day she met one of her former tenants upon the street, a well-dressed, prosperous young matron, who had left her house owing her ten dollars for rent. The good clothes of the delinquent tenant offered a sharp contrast to the shabby attire of the landlady. She asked for her back rent gently enough at first, but the conversation fast grew acrid and stormy. The tenant refused point blank to pay up, and that evening, at nine o'clock, after the defeated landlady had told the tale to her sympathizing family, and they were already in bed, in officer cattle with a warrant to arrest the head of the house for disorderly conduct and to curry her off to the nearest police station. Fortunately, the good Irish heart of the officer was touched by the piteous plight of the old lady of seventy-eight, and he contented himself with her promise to appear before tile police justice this next morning at ten o'clock. She came to Hull House early in the morning in a pathetic and bewildered state of mind, that she who had avoided a police court all her life, and had held it up as an awful warning to her grandsons, should now be brought there herself because she had tried to collect the rent justly due her. She went to the police court accompanied by two of her Hull House friends. During the earliest stages of the trial they kept in the background, and were chagrined to find that the old lady appeared very badly. The sight of her triumphant and prosperous tenant brought forth a volley of shrill invective. The tenant was filled with reasonable excuses and surrounded by several witnesses. She had meant to pay up as soon as her husband received his month's wages, and had repeatedly told the old lady so. She was attacked on the street in thin presence of strangers, and her character brought into question. The prosperous plaintiff made so good an impression that the judge was about to dismiss this case with a stern reprimand to this landlady for losing her temper and making a scene in this streets, without any further investigation as to her character or claims. One of her Hull House friends was prompted by her long acquaintance with the defendant to make all appeal so eloquent that the judge grew chivalric, and fluidly apologized to the old lady for this annoyance caused her; and the light-minded although kind-hearted tenant, touched in turn by his example, borrowed ten dollars on this spot from one of this swell witnesses whom she had brought, and paid her back rent. The desire to administer justice in the case apparently never occurred to anybody involved. It was a question of bad manners and shrewish retort, eloquent speaking and kind-hearted response, from beginning to end. The desire for revenge was mollified if not gratified, by the arrest, and the complainant softened. It would be easy to instance dozens of similar cases.

The greatest difficulty is experienced when the two standards come sharply together, and when an attempt is made at understanding and explanation. The difficulty of defining one's own ethical standpoint is at times insurmountable. A woman who had bought and sold schoolbooks stolen from the school fund, books plainly marked with a red stamp, came to Hull House one morning in great distress because she had been arrested, and begged a resident "to speak to the judge." She gave as a reason the fact that the House had known her for six years, and had once been very good to her when her little girl was buried. The resident more than suspected that her visitor knew the schoolbooks were stolen, when buying them, and my attempt to talk upon that subject was evidently considered very rude. The visitor wished to avoid a trial, and manifestly saw no reason why the House should not help her. The alderman was out of town, so she could not go to him. After a long conversation the visitor entirely failed to got another point of view, and went away grieved and disappointed at a refusal, thinking the resident simply disobliging,—wondering, no doubt, why such a mean woman had once been good to her; leaving the resident, on the other hand, utterly baffled, and in the state of mind she should have been in had she brutally insisted that a little child should lift weights too heavy for its undeveloped muscles.

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