150 Years Of The Atlantic October 2007


This is the 19th in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary.

For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic.com/ideastour.

The Subtle Problems of Charity
February 1899
by Jane Addams

A decade after co-founding Hull House, the renowned settlement house in Chicago, the pioneering social worker Jane Addams made note of the sometimes-enlightening challenge of dispensing aid to men and women of a different class and background.

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 …

A most striking incongruity, at once apparent, is the difference between the emotional kindness with which relief is given by one poor neighbor to another poor neighbor, and the guarded care with which relief is given by a charity visitor to a charity recipient …

When the charity visitor comes in, all the neighbors are baffled as to what her circumstances may be. They know she does not need a new pair of shoes, and rather suspect that she has a dozen pairs at home; which indeed she sometimes has …

The visitor is continually surprised to find that the safest platitudes may be challenged. She refers quite naturally to the “horrors of the saloon,” and discovers that the head of her visited family, who knows the saloons very well, does not connect them with “horrors” at all. He remembers all the kindnesses he has received there, the free lunch and treating which go on, even when a man is out of work and not able to pay up; the poor fellows who are allowed to sit in their warmth when every other door is closed to them; the loan of five dollars he got there, when the charity visitor was miles away, and he was threatened with eviction …

The same thing happens when she urges upon him a spirit of independ- ence … There is no use in talking independence to a man when he is going to stand in a row, hat in hand, before an office desk, in the hope of getting a position …

The charity visitor … discovers how incorrigibly bourgeois her standards have been, and it takes but a little time to reach the conclusion that she cannot insist so strenuously upon the conventions of her own class.

Vol. 83, No. 496, pp. 163–178

State Pensions or Charity?
May 1930
by Alice Hamilton

Seven months after the stock-market crash of 1929, Alice Hamilton, a doctor who had worked with Jane Addams at Hull House and was now the first woman on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, made a case for government-issued pensions for the needy.

I must … join with those who stand for state pensions for the aged poor rather than support given through private charity …

Not long ago I was in an iron foundry, watching the pouring of molten iron into moulds. I noticed one man, older than the rest, staggering along with his heavy ladle, which he could only just carry, although, arrived at his moulds, he did a neat job. He was plainly in constant fear that he could not make it; he was straining every muscle to keep up with the others, to hold on to his job. As I watched him, sensing keenly his fear and his desperate effort, I heard my guide say: ‘Come back here in three months and you won’t see any of these men. I’ll show you what we are doing now.’ He took me to another building and there I saw an automatic machine pouring iron into moulds, doing the work of a dozen men and under the charge of three slim lads of less than twenty years. The man I had been watching had no need to strain his heart over his work—he was doomed to be scrapped in any case …

In thinking of old-age pensions we must take into consideration a great new class of needy people. These are not men who have lived all their lives on the edge of poverty; they are self-respecting artisans, skilled workers, men who have made good wages and held their heads high. At a moment when such a man still possesses all his old skill of eye and hand, and the gains of long experience, he finds himself no longer wanted, of less use in our American social system than his little feather-brained daughter with a year’s training in a business school …

It will be harder and harder for him to find any sort of job, even if he dyes his hair and makes pitiful efforts to hide the senility of fifty years … Personally, I am very loath to accept the verdict that a dependence on the benevolence of the uppermost class toward the lowest class is the only possible American way of solving the problem of the poor, or even that it makes for a healthy state and contentment at the bottom of society …

The American workman may earn high wages … but even if he does, he must live all his working life under the shadow of three Damoclean swords: sickness, loss of his job, and old age, and against these our country, the richest in the world, gives him no protection.

Would generous gifts to organized charity remedy this lack? Well, let him who asks that question imagine for a moment that he himself is faced at sixty-five with the alternatives of private charity, administered with the greatest tact and understanding, and a state pension administered as a matter of official routine. I think there can be no doubt of his choice.

Vol. 145, No. 5, pp. 683–687

Private Fortunes and the Public Future
August 1935
by Abraham Flexner

In the midst of the Great Depression, as the federal government began to take an increasingly active role in looking after citizen welfare, the educator Abraham Flexner, who founded the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, urged readers to remember that private philanthropy, too, has a crucial role to play.

Quite recently a large assembly gathered in the City of New York to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Montefiore Hospital for Chronic Diseases. This institution was established fifty years ago by a group of devoted and grateful men and women and by them dedicated to the relief of suffering humanity …

This institution is only one of hundreds—hospitals, schools, universities, museums, orchestras, and various associations—which relieve the state of part of its burden, and which, I venture to say, as a general rule carry on more economically and more effectively than similar institutions which are managed by public authorities …

We happen to be living in an era when, in consequence of human gullibility and fallibility, the world has been overtaken by panic and distress such as private initiative alone cannot cope with. To an extent that could previously never have been expected the cities, the states, and the central government have been compelled to undertake to provide relief where voluntary agencies have been unequal to the task. I have no criticism to make on this score. It is a splendid and inspiring thing that at a time of great social crisis the American nation has found itself possessed of a form of government which can relieve the poor, clothe the naked, and provide support for the unemployed; but at this very moment when the government is doing all that it can humanly do in these various directions it behooves us to remember the essence of our tradition of private effort and benefaction …

Civilization and culture … cannot be obtained unless abundance and leisure exist … It is important to this country to emphasize the fact that the rôle of private effort has not been exhausted and that, unless we are to abandon all our traditions in government, in philanthropy, and in education, it cannot be abandoned … I cannot forget the vast debt that we owe … to those thousands and hundreds of thousands who have contributed small means as well as large to building up institutions of learning, museums, and hospitals which represent the high-water mark of our civilization …

It might even be maintained that the level of a given civilization can perhaps be measured by the extent of private initiative, private responsibility, private organization in all the fields open to human culture …

The accumulation of fortunes through foresight, unusual capacity, energy, thrift, and native honorable shrewdness is in itself no crime. On the contrary … fortunes so accumulated may be made the sources from which great philanthropic, cultural, and beneficent enterprises ultimately flow.

Vol. 156, No. 2, pp. 215–224

The Capitalist Threat
February 1997
by George Soros

In 1997, the billionaire and international philanthropist George Soros contended that great fortunes are made to be redistributed.

Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society …

By taking the conditions of supply and demand as given and declaring government intervention the ultimate evil, laissez-faire ideology has effectively banished income or wealth redistribution. I can agree that all attempts at redistribution interfere with the efficiency of the market, but it does not follow that no attempt should be made … Wealth does accumulate in the hands of its owners, and if there is no mechanism for redistribution, the inequities can become intolerable. “Money is like muck, not good except it be spread.” Francis Bacon was a profound economist.

Vol. 279, No. 2, pp. 45–58

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