The New View of Charity

IN our midst are the waste products of civilization. Here are orphans and neglected children, sick and disabled men and women, friendless and homeless aged, physically and morally handicapped persons, insane and feeble-minded, inebriates and vagrants, deserted families, stranded wrecks of humanity: some very forlorn and of forbidding appearance, some very attractive and personally above reproach. What are we to do with these families, these individuals, these aged infirm, these innocent children? Family affection has supplied one part of the answer; and the state, from the elementary obligation to maintain order, has supplied another part; but there has remained a large part for charity. The orphan asylum, the foster home, the reformatory, the cruelty society, the hospital, dispensary, and day-nursery, the relief society, fresh-air agency, wood-yard, sewing bureau, are the answer which the community has made, and wisely made, to this immediate imperative question thrust upon us by the very existence of obvious and undeniable suffering and misery. It is the old view that distress should be relieved. We need have no quarrel with that view. The world’s advance is “ spiral, on a flat,” like that of the inebriate or the worm, and we do well to

Cherish the promise of its good intents
And warn it, not one instinct to efface
Ere reason ripens for the vacant place.

It is difficult to understand the reasoning process of the carping critic who admits, when driven into a corner, the soundness of the view that distress is to be relieved, and yet has only patronizing and grudging approval, or perhaps open sarcasm, for the people who give their money and their time to this necessary work. It is indeed something to have attained clearly to this old view. Old as humanity, permanent as the hills, beautiful as the rarest quality of the human soul, is this instinct to help others who are in trouble. Courtesy is but one form of it. Consideration for others demands charity in a case of need, as it demands politeness in the parlor, and loyalty on a field of battle or in the presence of calumny against a friend.

I do not condemn charitable foundations, relief-funds, agencies for the relief of suffering. Not only do I not condemn them; I withhold from them no meed of praise. It has been my duty to help to create them, to aid in securing their perpetuation and endowment, to bring them to the favorable attention of the giving public, to withstand attacks upon them, to interpret their spirit, and to justify their ends. And this I have done, not as an unwelcome duty, but with pleasure and satisfaction, for I have looked upon them as necessary and beneficial; and on the whole, as compared with municipal enterprises, or business enterprises, or religious enterprises, or educational enterprises, they are exceedingly well managed institutions.

Nevertheless, I have been devoting much time these past few years to trying to develop, and to coöperating with others to develop, a somewhat different view of charity from that which is represented by our existing charitable institutions. It is their original purpose to relieve distress — one in one way, and another in another; one for one kind of distress, and another for another kind; one to deal with a particular class, and another to promote coöperation among diverse charities and to prevent overlapping; one to improve the condition of the poor, and another to organize charity; but one and all, whatever higher vision may have animated the founders, and whatever experiments in various directions may have been made here and there, are mainly engaged in relieving distress, in helping individuals to find a way out of distress; and doing this increasingly in such a way, and with such safeguards, as to prevent, if possible, their falling again into a dependent condition. This has been organized charity at its best. This was Robert M. Hartley’s permanent improvement of the condition of the poor. This was Josephine Shaw Lowell’s treatment of character, through investigation, coöperation, and personal service. For this the Widows’ Society, and the United Hebrew Charities, and the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, and the other relief agencies, in their greatest efficiency, have striven. It is an altogether noble conception. And yet, as I have just said, we have been engaged in making clear the outlines of another view. We have rounded another corner. We have seen that, although consistent with the modern social spirit, it is not a complete expression of it; and we have discovered that the relief of distress, however intelligent, and the prevention of dependence in the individual case by personal influence, and the most thorough inquiry into the causes of individual need, do not exhaust the benign aspects of that charity in whose name we work and plan for the common good.

This newer view upon which we have been placing emphasis is, in a word, that there are social as well as individual causes of misery, of dependence, of poverty, and of crime. We have learned to look to bad housing conditions, dark and unsanitary tenements, indecent halls and yards, insufficiency of room to live in, to play in, to grow in — we have learned to call these, even as we called drink and dishonesty, causes of distress. We have learned to look to conditions directly affecting health: infection in water, in milk, in food, in the dust of the streets, in wallpaper, and the unfumigated cracks and crevices of our flats and apartments, in neglected plumbing and the very air that we have contaminated, and to call these also causes of poverty, through the undermining of health and vigor. We have learned to look to our schools, and to ask, in the name of charity as well as of education, whether they are training for that efficiency which will prevent poverty, and for the strengthening of character. We have learned to look our public servants squarely between the eyes — mayor, commissioner, warden, policeman, and all the rest — and demand, not yet always successfully, such return for their wages as will mean a lessening of the need for charity. We have learned from the specialists in one field the evils of childlabor; and from those in another the consequences of long hours in women’s work; and from those in another the connection between unprotected machinery and unpoliced railways, on the one hand, and widowhood, orphanage, and their resulting dependence on the other. We have learned that there is a vital relation between the standard of living, determined not by any one family, but by the community group to which one belongs, demanding a certain minimum income to maintain that standard in decency and comfort, and the decisions which must be reached by relief societies and charitable individuals who assume responsibility for the relief of distress.

Such, then, are some of the elements in the newer view of charity which has been occupying our attention: housing, preventable disease, inefficiency resulting from defective education, corrupt and inefficient government, child-labor, excessive and unreasonable toil by women, industrial accidents, a low standard of living. They are all social rather than individual. It is for this reason that we have all but transformed our charitable societies into agencies to investigate and improve social conditions; that the Sage Foundation is established and endowed for this identical purpose; that the New York Charity Organization Society has created a special department, freed from all responsibility for charity in the ordinary sense, to do what it can in the same direction; that numerous committees and associations are established to work at one or another bad condition which they choose for their special attack; and that the progressive charitable society — whatever its name or particular function may have been — necessarily, under the pressure of an awakening social conscience, has become, in addition, a society for the development of accurate knowledge as to what our social conditions really are.

Dealing always with the family at the margin, with those who have no surplus savings, or energy, or efficiency, to protect them from the immediate consequences of bad conditions, the charitable societies come first to a realization of what those conditions are. An illness, an accident, a failure in justice, may be a regrettable incident in the lives of others, but among the poor it is the quick stroke of fate, meaning disaster and dependence. At the margin there are few complications. In their nakedness, in their true character, these effects of bad conditions are written swiftly into the records of the societies that have to do with destitution. Too long, many of us must confess in contrition, our work was done perfunctorily, with no vision of the essential causes, the social causes; but now we have seen, and the sum-total of our impressions — that is the new view of charity; that is, for us, the incarnation of the social spirit. It is our belief, not that the creation of a favorable environment will of itself transform character, but that the normal man, who is now crushed, will, under favorable conditions, rise unaided, and that poverty and destitution will know him no more. The tragedy of our present situation is that people whose original endowment is quite as good as the average are overborne by adverse conditions, conditions which individually they cannot control and of which they are the victims. The improvement of social conditions is a policy to be advocated, and carried through, in the interests of the normal man. It is by no means exclusively the concern of charity, though charity speaks from knowledge gained by its neglect. How much of poverty would disappear with the destruction of bad social conditions we do not know, for we do not know how many of those who fail are victims of bad conditions, and how many are in some way deficient. To find that out, we shall need to correct the conditions which we know to be injurious, and then discover how much of our present need for charity remains.

The programme of social work to which this newer view of charity logically brings us is, first of all, a health-programme. It calls for a department of school hygiene, to discover and correct the physical defects of school children. After a new reformatory for boys had been in operation a few months, the superintendent called in a dentist, who reported that one hundred and sixty boys had seriously defective teeth. In response to an inquiry as to how many boys there were in the institution when the examination was made, the superintendent replied, one hundred and sixty. No doubt nearly all these boys had been in the public schools. Possibly the criminal bacillus, if they have one, could not have been discovered by thorough physical examination in the school, but the decay in the teeth could have been discovered, and should have been discovered and corrected.

The programme of social work calls for safe and decent homes, with light and air, better tenements for those who stay in the cities, country homes for all who can afford to seek them and have the good sense to do it. It demands that we deal with congestion, whether we rely upon philanthropic investment by large sums in the outlying suburbs, or upon legal limitation of the number of factories that may be operated in the industrially congested districts, or upon both combined, and other remedies.

The social programme calls, and calls loudly, for playgrounds and parks. It demands the conquest of infectious disease. The shortening of life, the resulting burden of dependence and suffering, the loss of income, the increased expenses which are still due to diseases which are the result of social neglect, account for a large part of our charitable tasks. That is not, however, the whole of the indictment. For every family which preventable disease brings to the actual point of asking for charity, there are scores who are brought in that direction, brought to a loss of savings, brought to a lower standard of living, brought to hardship and privation, brought to less desirable rooms in a meaner neighborhood, brought to the loss of chances for educating their children, brought through many stages on a downward journey, even if they escape the last bitter degradation of an appeal to charity and a potter’s field. The social programme is a health-programme — not to save the money of the charitable, but to save the life and vigor, the economic independence, and the prosperity, of the normal man. If we could but eliminate this one “ bad condition,” deaths and illness from the diseases now universally classed as preventable, we should keep many a family from the margin. The charitable societies know this, because they deal with them there at the margin, where they have come because of social neglect.

The social programme calls for the total and immediate abolition of child labor in mine and factory, in store and office, in messenger and newspaper service, in tenement home, and wherever else the employment of children becomes their exploitation. Quite possibly, even on the farms, especially where there is anything like gang-labor, there are such temptations; but, certainly, in all industrial and mining operations, child-labor means physical, mental, and moral destruction ; and in the interests of the normal man, the workingman of the next generation, we wish to protect his childhood, that it may not be sacrificed to the convenience and profit of the employer, or the greed and ignorance of the parent, or the economic advantage of the buyer of his wares.

The social spirit insists upon honest and efficient government. Such work, if I may choose my illustrations from my own city of New York, as the State Charities Aid Association has long done for the protection and improvement of the public hospitals and institutions; such work as the Tenement House Committee has done for eight years in reference to tenement-house legislation and its enforcement; such work as the Public Education Association is doing, and such greatly increased work as it ought to do, in connection with the system of public schools; such work as the Bureau of Municipal Research has undertaken in developing the facts about the actual work of our municipal departments, and as the City Club is doing, and is likely to do, to increase the efficiency of municipal government — these are parts of a comprehensive social programme, to the absence of which, in the past, charity bears mournful testimony; to the imperative need for which, charitable societies are perhaps now most alive, one interesting indication of this being the extent to which these several kinds of civic work have drawn upon the personnel of the charitable societies for their executives and assistants.

The programme of social work which I have outlined, rather by illustration and suggestion than completely, offers an alternative —the only tolerable alternative — to socialism. I do not suggest that this is its chief attraction; but to those who in their hearts fear socialism, who think that they discern in the sky portentous signs of a coming storm, I would suggest that their wise course is not to seek the services of an “ accelerator of public opinion,” or to put forth elaborate and weighty rejoinders to the theories of a past generation, but rather, in sincerity and singleness of purpose, with the financial resources at their command, and with the energy and sound judgment which they would bring to bear upon a difficult business problem, to coöperate in the removal of those adverse conditions in our present industrial and social system upon which all that is in the least convincing in the socialist’s indictment depends.

Our indictment against particular social conditions is no less severe than that of the socialist. We have our evidence, we are willing that it should be subjected to the laws of evidence. We can prove that unsanitary tenements are numerous, that they are injurious and unnecessary. We can show that accidents and disease are more common than is reasonable, in view of the discoveries of science and the demonstrations of preventive hygiene. We can show children doing the work of men, and it needs no physiologist to demonstrate that it is uneconomic, uncharitable, and inhuman. We can show conditions in courts and jails and prisons that in themselves will account for the persistence of crime. And we can convince any men and women of brains, of wealth, of influence, and of latent power for the common welfare, that upon none of these things do their welfare and their success depend. These things of which we complain yield profits, but they are the profits of exploitation and greed, not the profits of business enterprise and commercial honor. No industry essential to the common good rests upon childlabor, unrequited accidents, an indecent standard of living. The plane of competition may be drawn above the line of those conditions which mean misery and degradation. If it were not so, we should all become socialists; but it is so. Those who have faith in the wholesomeness of modern industry, who believe that when the thieves and cheats have been hounded out of business, business can still go on; that when the sharp practices, some of which are more severely condemned now than they were a few years ago, are eliminated, the general aspect of business will be virtually unchanged, — in other words that it is now fundamentally sound and honest, — should surely, eagerly, and from conviction, help to gauge these adverse conditions, to understand them and to change them. The programme of social work is their work, rather than the work of those who wish to see the whole structure changed.

If now we may take one more perilous step — around another corner — it will bring us again to the individual who is in trouble; the constant object of vision in the older view of charity. We come back, let us hope, with a clearer insight because our eyes have been for a time on more distant views.

With the eye of prophecy, we see our applicant for charity in an environment freed from the burdens of bad housing and over-crowding, of preventable disease, of child-labor, and excessive toil for women; in an environment in which there is well-distributed and regular employment, with a reasonable amount of leisure, a protected childhood, a rational standard of living, well-regulated factories, well-regulated homes and well-regulated communal life, — no utopian millennium at all, just the conditions which we now, on the basis of our own experience and knowledge, may assert without sentimentality or exaggeration to be entirely practicable for all mankind. Would there remain any field for charity and for what we call social work ? Certainly there would. The field that would remain is precisely that which charity in all these past years, reversing the natural order, wrongly conceiving what was the next step ahead, has sought to occupy. Precisely the admirable plan outlined by Richard C. Cabot, in an address before the New York School of Philanthropy in 1906, would then be applicable.1

We have said that the programme of social work, the changing of adverse social conditions, is essentially a programme in the interest of the normal man, and that, if these bad conditions could be removed, the man who is not by nature or by inheritance a dependent would rise from the misery into which extraordinary misfortune and social neglect have brought him. This is the lesson of Simon N. Patten’s New Basis of Civilization. “ When a social worker,” he says, “ accepts this creed, he soon finds that regeneration is prevented, not by defects in personality, but by defects in the environment, and that the subjective tests of character to which he has been accustomed must be replaced by objective standards which test the environment. We need not work for regeneration; it will of itself flow from sources we neither create nor control. But we do need to work for the removal of external conditions which by suppressing and distorting human nature give to vice the power that virtue should possess.”

A little earlier Dr. Patten had expressed this faith in other words: “ The depraved man is not the natural man; for in him the natural is suppressed beneath a crushing load of misfortunes, superstitions, and ill-fitting social conditions.” “It is, without doubt,” he says, " more difficult than was once believed to lift a man with normal faculties to a higher plane of existence; but it is far easier than we have thought to raise a man below the general level of humanity up to it. There are no differences between him and his normal neighbors which cannot be rapidly obliterated. He does not lack their blood, but their health, their vigor, their good fortune, their culture, and their environment.”

It is obvious that in all this Dr. Patten is thinking of normal persons, normal, that is to say, in all except these external things which he has enumerated and which we have previously been considering as involved in the adverse social conditions which we wish to change. It is equally obvious that Dr. Cabot, in his definition of social work as the study of character under adversity, is not thinking of such persons, but of those who are really deficient in character. He considers that one hundred families reported by a relief society, in which there was practically no mental or moral deficiency, were not, properly-speaking, cases for a social worker at all; that disease, which has caused two-thirds of the destitution in those families, is the concern of the physician; and that a low wage, which was responsible for the other third, is a matter resting between capital and labor, organized or unorganized. “ The social worker, I maintain,” says Dr. Cabot, “ should be chiefly an educator, a nurturer, stimulator, developer, and director of human souls, particularly in that group of persons whose character or temperament has brought them into some sort of trouble.”

When our programme of social work shall have been carried into effect, when the environment is transformed by the abolition of the bad conditions which now undermine health and destroy life, which make rational domestic life impossible and embitter the working hours, then social work will be what Dr. Cabot describes it to be. We can then study the individual, and shall know that any difficulties which he may still have, come from bad inheritance which we may be able to help him to overcome, from faults of character which we may find some way to correct. In the mean time we cannot safely assume any such deficiency. The chances are against it. The chances are that we shall frequently find only such hygienic and economic causes of distress as Dr. Cabot rules out of court. Until we establish justice among men, until we insure the opportunity for an independent, normal life for all normal men, we need not be surprised, when we set ourselves up as experts in the diagnosis and treatment of character, if we find queer things in its distribution among men.

The new view, then, to which we would come, the right view, is but a glimpse at the end of all these vistas, a glimpse not of the individual alone, nor of the social conditions alone, but of the relation between them in the field of social work; of the place for individual diagnosis and treatment in an environment which has measurably approached our ideal. There is room for difference of opinion as to whether the emphasis should be placed on the individual or on the environment. It has been my inclination to throw the emphasis on the improvement of conditions, because it has seemed to me a waste of effort to try to improve the character of those who are not deficient in character, to work at retail at what is essentially a wholesale transaction, to bail with a spoon when we may open the sluiceways, to rely on isolated personal effort with individuals to accomplish what it can never accomplish, what can be accomplished only by the resources of legislation, of taxation, of large expenditure, or by changes in our educational system, or in our penal system, or in our taxing system, or even in our industrial system. And yet, after all, our environment has already changed in many respects for the better. Notwithstanding our blunders and neglect, we are doing better; and the incontrovertible proof lies in our diminishing death-rate. Social conditions need to be changed in many ways, but they are better than they were.

Strictly from the social point of view, we should give far more attention to the individual — an attention of a different kind. Man, from the standpoint of anthropology, as a thinking and working animal, may be studied, as we study housing and bacteria. We should have in our charitable societies a psychological diagnosis of applicants. District agents and visitors should become and be recognized as experts, as some of them already are, in the understanding and management of the weaknesses and perversions of character. Some families are normal except for their misfortunes and their environment, and that is one of the very things to discover. Others are deficient, and a quick discovery of such deficiencies would lead to an earlier course of such treatment as might give greatest hope of removing them. Still others are not merely deficient, but defective, that is, they have some incurable defect, and more prompt recognition of this would also be advantageous.

This view then — this return, if the reader prefers, to a very old view — brings our applicant again into the centre of vision; brings him, however, at least potentially freed from the crushing burden of an adverse environment, brings him as one entitled to our compassion because of some deficiency of mind or body, some definite thing for us to do, something which the man in trouble cannot do for himself even though he may have every chance from childhood.

The social worker who, with a conscience void of offense because he has done what he can to create such social conditions as will give every man a just and reasonable chance, assuming that in such an environment every normal man will be expected to determine for himself what he will do with his opportunity, comes at last to the individual of deficient strength, and finds here his chance for personal service, for professional service. He is in the position of the physician who has contributed something also to preventive medicine. I behold charity, gracious, clear-eyed, freehanded, warm of heart, seeking out these helpless children of men to do them good. She has traveled a long journey in her search for the remedies for the specific evils which have brought her grievous burdens, but this last burden, a legacy from the slowly remediable mistakes of the past, is not grievous. If men need help because only of what they cannot do, and no longer ask aid because of the harm their brothers do, whether in malice or in ignorance, then to give that help is no burden, but a delight.

This view of charity is, I grant, the oldest of all views, the view of the ancient Hebrew, that charity and justice are one; the view of the Apostle that charity abideth, with faith and hope, and is greater than they; greater for this reason, above all, that, wherever she journeys and whatever her achievements, she never loses sight of the individual man, woman, or child.

  1. “Social Work : The Diagnosis and Treatment of Character in Difficulties.” BY RICHARD C. CABOT : Charities and the Commons, November 2,1907.