The Poor in Cities

HOW to relieve the poor in our cities without wounding their self-respect, by insuring them employment at fair wages, is a problem that taxes the wits of economists and philanthropists. Private charity assists many over the hard places till they can plant their feet firmly once more, and have the certainty of bread for the day. But when trouble comes in financial circles, thousands of these poor people are thrown out of employment, and, having no bread for the day, are glad of the city’s supply of soup. It is no new song of sorrow that we hear, of more seamstresses than shirts, more teachers than pupils, of starvation in attics, or its alternative, infamy in the streets. The intelligence-offices are crowded with applicants for all kinds of labor, and day after day the pressure continues.

This is in Boston, the capital of the State of Massachusetts. Three miles from Boston it is next to impossible to find a woman to do plain needle-work ; and in the country, a hundred miles from Boston, everybody does his or her own drudgery, for the simple reason that nobody can be hired to do it. There is plenty of material out of place, and a great scarcity when and where you want it.

It would seem, at first, that the supply would seek the demand. In ordinary cases this would occur without effort or special care, and laborers would be dispersed in such directions as would be most desirable. But the poor in our cities have now become so great in number as to require more assistance than they have ever yet had, to enable them to work out the highest prosperity for themselves and the State. A large proportion of these people are Irish immigrants of a class too ignorant to plan for themselves. Swedes and Germans generally proceed at once to the West, and found or join communities there. The Irish usually stayin the cities where they first land. They seek at once the persons they have previously known in Ireland, and through them endeavor to obtain employment, either in factories or on railroads. Indeed, it can hardly be expected that men with families will voluntarily start off for the distant parts of the country, uncertain of their destination, and unable to do anything but dig. They leave Ireland with understandings almost as limited as their accomplishments, and they need guidance and assistance, as a general rule, from the time they come to this country.

In addition to the Irish element of our population, large numbers of native women and their children crowd in attics and cellars, living from day to dayon the smallest means that will sustain life. The man who keeps the slop-shop gives these women only six cents for making a shirt, not because he is a hardhearted wretch, but because plenty of women in the country will make shirts for six cents, in their leisure hours. It is a waste of breath to urge any of these seamstresses or their daughters to seek employment in the only avenue not already crowded, namely, domestic service. From false, but not the less inveterate, notions of respectability, they decline acting in what they consider a servile capacity. To starve is disagreeable, but to answer bells is dishonorable, and what no free-born American woman will descend to. They have always hopes of an improvement in their fate; they repel the insult of public aid ; they feign cheerfulness and assurance to conceal the wasting fear for the morrow; and when the morrow brings death, they leave their children with an inheritance of the same courage, endurance, and false pride which has sustained themselves. It is not easy to see how such persons can be permanently helped, except by the indirect influence of change of place. The circumstances and modes of living in remote country towns often offer pleasant and acceptable openings for industry, without wounding the sensitiveness and pride already spoken of. Many of these American families have hidden themselves in city garrets, rather than face a change from abundance to poverty among those who knew them in prosperity. An entire change of position is often the salvation of families of this description ; and any one familiar with the characteristics of this portion of our people can understand how difficult it is for any permanent benefit to be secured to them without this entire change. The strength and the weakness are both useful under new circumstances.

These two classes — the ignorant but industrious emigrant, and the poor, proud American — should be cared for by an association so organized as constantly to command the opportunities they need to better their condition. The work is in different parts of the State. The men and women to do the work, packed close in the attics and cellars of the city, wait for the employment which is not to be had where they are.

It may be said that the State has no right to interfere with the liberty of individuals, by directing their motions, and removing them from place to place. But has not the State the right to protect itself against pauperism, and its consequence, heavy taxation ? As things now are, the honest and industrious poor strain every nerve, and live on scanty fare, in order to pay their proportion of a tax to support the idle and profligate in houses of correction or in prisons. Whenever the unemployed poor who are crowded in cities come to utter want the State must take up the burden of their support. Has not the State a right to organize guardianship as well as punishment, prevention as well as cure ?

Not to look at the moral or sentimental side of the subject, but only at what good policy requires, it would seem the duty of the State to organize some method of permanent relief for the unemployed portion of its population. The means of relief exist. The right to employ them only is wanting.

A hundred miles from the city, and at a distance from any railway, are many towns where agriculture is carried on with great difficulty, from the impossibility of procuring labor of the commonest sort. In some towns, one man only is skilled in gardening; and when " Mr. Peck " is not to be had, each gentleman must dig his own strawberrybed, as his wife has already found it necessary to do her own scrubbing. Persons in easy circumstances, who are ready to pay high wages for service, cannot command it. These facts are so familiar to every one, that it is not necessary to repeat them, or to add that the same remarks apply to towns only twenty miles away from large cities, if they are off the great railroad lines, and necessarily at a distance from a Catholic church.

Seeing this state of things, private charity has attempted relief on a small scale, and generally, it must be confessed, with poor success. A family removed from destitution in the city to a country village proves, sometimes, a worthless addition to a small community quick to observe shortcomings, and not over-eager to make allowances for faults. Sometimes the people are unwilling to take the risk of having possible paupers thrust upon them ; and the more thrifty and able the community, the greater is the dread of poor hangers-on. Many obvious objections to schemes of private charity would disappear under organized and systematic public management. Much experience, however, would be necessary in order to bring about the greatest good to the parties to be benefited ; for it is not too much to say, that the benefit would be as great to the employer as to the employed.

Within three miles of Vanity Fair lives a basket-maker and his wife, with ten children. Of course they are half starved, and are clothed mostly by charity. Yet when urged to go to Beulah, where were willows enough, room enough, food enough, and probably quite as good a market for baskets, the basket-maker declined to fly to evils that he knew not of ; while the inhabitants of Beulah declined, quite as decidedly, the possibilities of pauperism involved in the proposition. No guaranties could be offered on either side. But guaranties would be offered and secured in a public organization; while wise mediation and energetic management, on the part of officers experienced in dealing with the poor, would obviate the difficulties inevitably connected with private schemes of relief. If the basket-maker, who half lives on charity where he is, had his fare paid to Beulah, forty miles off, and if somebody was there ready to receive him, to guarantee his good behavior and his rent, the inhabitants would welcome to their delectable land twelve additions to their working community ; while he and his family, being at last in their proper place, would cease to be a burden, and begin to feel that there is some blessedness in living.

Franklin says: “It has been computed that, if every man and woman would work four hours a day in something useful, that labor would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life. Want and misery would be banished from the world, and the rest of the twenty-four hours would be leisure and pleasure.”

Two things hinder a state of universal contentment, it is said,—one, that labor is not equally shared by all ; the other, that the labor of all is not equally rewarded. It is not supposed that any philanthropic or economic schemes will bring about a universal competence. While vice, idleness, and improvidence continue, it is not likely Utopia will come into fashion; but the State can defend itself, and promote the health and happiness of its citizens, by wise authority and effort in their behalf. It can place its redundant poor where they can at least have the chance of working their four hours a day; and where they can supply a want which, of itself, retards the prosperity and progress of a large portion of the community. The impossibility of procuring labor to carry on the farm in New England exists, not because the laborers are not in the State, but because they are lounging in city streets, waiting for those better times that will give them a sewer to dig, or coal to heave, or else famishing in attics, their hearts sick with hope deferred.

Let there be an “ Emigrant Agency,” to which unemployed persons may go, — not to be sent to Illinois or Kansas, or any far-off place, but to some point on lines radiating from a capital city, and within the State. Let there be officers employed at each extremity of these radiating lines, and at all other points where occupation is secured for the applicants, to receive the families, or the individuals, who want work, and to see that they are housed and employed. Let the emigrants begin to feel at once that the eye of the State is upon them; that they are members of a self-respecting community, and are expected to grow up both useful and ornamental.

It it be objected, that such a plan is too vast, that it requires large means, and a multitude of officers, it may be answered, that the means required would not be equal to those annually employed in the present administration of private and public beneficence in the Northern States. As now made, our great outlay scantily, unequally, and, above all, unseasonably, meets the pressing wants described. The mischief is nearly done before any relief is applied. Destitution has already taken the form of vice, and has offended public opinion and public safety before public charity offers succor. A little care beforehand, and the policestation and house of reformation would not have been needed.

The organization of the Children’s Mission presents many features desirable to be copied in any association on a large scale. This Mission is intended to benefit destitute orphans or vagrants by sending them to homes in the far West, where agents are stationed, and where homes are ready to receive the children. When a sufficient number of the little ones is collected, clothed, and instructed, they make the Western journey under the care of an agent, who delivers them in the appointed places. Correspondence is constantly kept up between these children and the officers at this end of the line. The benefit is mutual. They are saved from vice and vagrancy here, and they are welcome where work is abundant and workers few.

But New England does not want to send away her laborers. On the contrary, she needs them all. There is room enough for all, and more than work enough. In fact, labor is a great deal too well paid, — that is to say, unskilled labor. Following the law of supply and demand, the ignorant housemaid in a country town, who scarcely knows the name of the commonest utensil, and who, in justice, does not earn the bread she eats, requires, and obtains, the same wages that an experienced and competent person in the city receives. The labor must be obtained somehow, at any cost. But if there were ten times as many laborers in the country, work would be ten times better done than it is now. So many of the young men of New England have emigrated to the West, that there is abundant room for the raw material from Ireland, if only the immigrants are wisely directed and apportioned.

As to the objection, that a very large number of officers is necessary to carry on a plan of this kind, it seems hardly worth considering. Perhaps the same men who so skilfully and humanely manage the houses of correction and reformation already mentioned might be employed in a work to supersede either. The foreign population thus brought more directly under purely American influences would be greatly benefited. The Yankee leaven leavens great lumps, and the natural position of employer gives an advantage in requiring and encouraging improvement in habits and character. In Syracuse, New York, some years ago, the writer was shown a row of pretty, white cottages, built alike, and with trim gardens to each. It was a profound surprise to learn that these dwellings were a successful experiment on the part of a large railroad proprietor, and that the houses were all occupied by Irish laborers. They were rent free the first year, on condition that they should be kept in perfect order. The next year they were rented low, but always on the same condition ; and for some time the occupants had now paid full rent, and had great pride in keeping their little places with order and neatness. This experiment would seem to prove that progress is possible, under favorable circumstances, even among the reckless and improvident Hibernians.

The late Governor Andrew, when he sent one hundred respectable, well-educated young women to the extreme West, where there were no such luxuries, and provided them with a suitable escort thither, and an assurance of employment at their journey’s end, did the right thing in the right way, which might well be imitated on a large scale with the redundant poor who are unemployed in our cities. For these young women were educated to an employment which was already crowded. They were removed, at the expense of the State, to a place where they were needed, to a part of the country where their education would be useful to themselves and those about them. Who shall say what will be the difference between a community formed under such New England influences, and one grown up with casual and possibly barbarous influences? Such power has character that it is believed many hundreds of thousands of impressible Irish men and women might be made into excellent Yankees, if they were so dispersed as to receive fairly, and without prejudice, tire unconscious education that would come from daily contact with our own people. There might be a mutual influence with advantage to both ; but the sterner characteristics would be the stronger ones, at least in this bracing climate, and we should see, in the next generation, the vivacious Irish temperament assimilated in outward gravity to that of the Yankee, while he, in his turn, might have possibly borrowed something of the other’s hilarity. The unconscious missionaries acting daily at the heads of households are illustrations of this. An Irish girl who has been in an American family for a year will have so much changed her accent, that, when the rest of her family follow her from Ireland, as they generally do by that time, they scarcely recognize her speech.

If these people were generally dispersed through the country, and those gregarious habits broken up which are both the cause and effect of poverty, they would soon be visibly affected and changed by the direct social influences that would be brought to bear on them. For every reason, political and religious, it is desirable that the victims of poverty, ignorance, and vice now crowded together in cities, and totally incapable of making any feasible arrangements for their own advantage, should receive the systematic aid of the State in seeking a market for their labor, and the opportunity permanently to better their lot.