Pensions, Charity, and Old Age


WHEN the Governor of New York appointed a commission to study the advisability of an old-age pension paid by the state, he stimulated the general discussion of this problem. He did more. He questioned the present system of American social work.

There has grown up in the United States a science of caring for those who for any reason cannot care for themselves. The essence of this science is that each case shall have personal and individual treatment by people trained to discriminate. Individual and discriminating attention must be supported by private funds, for the state cannot discriminate. State aid for those who cannot care for themselves must be dispensed under general rules. This is the more common method abroad, where governmental action penetrates into and regulates the activities of the people far more than here.

It is worth while, therefore, when confronted with an agitation for state old-age pensions, to inquire first just what is the condition of the aged in this prosperous country and what is now done for those who cannot care for themselves; and secondly whether, if more should be done, it could not be done by the American system of discriminating attention. If it is proved that our own system will not meet this problem, then perhaps we must accept the solution of the old-age problem that has been largely accepted abroad, where not only the economic condition but the whole conception of life is different.

The American system of social work has developed to a very high degree without being generally very well understood. It is not usually realized how much it differs from the governmental pensions, charities, and doles in many parts of Europe, nor how much it differs from the common practice in the United States fifty years ago. Even a considerable number of the people who actually support it do not thoroughly understand the philosophy on which it is based.

‘ What per cent of the money that is given to charity actually reaches the poor?’

This is a rather common question even among people who support charities fairly generously. Yet it indicates a. lack of understanding of the revolution which has occurred in charitable work in the last fifty years, for the ambition of American charity, which is obviously still far from realized, is so to arrange matters that relief doled out in the form of money will seldom be needed.

The object of the anti-tuberculosis campaigns is to prevent the spread of the disease and, where that fails, to catch the cases early and arrest them so that the patient can go on with more or less normal activities. When all else fails it may become necessary to give money to patients in whom the disease has gone so far that they cannot work. But the amount of money given patients would be rather the measure of the failure of the main part of the campaign than a test of the effectiveness of anti-tuberculosis work.

I have also heard people ask the question in another form: ‘What is the percentage of overhead in the expenses of societies engaged in caring for the poor?’

The answer is to the same effect. The more overhead the better, if the job is successful. That is, of course, if in overhead are classed all expenditures except the money that reaches the poor in cash.

‘Do you mean to say,’ the skeptical ask, ‘that it is a good job when it costs $75,000 in welfare workers’ salaries and in rent to give away $25,000?' Of course not, and the $75,000 would not be spent in giving away the $25,000, The $75,000 would be spent in showing poor families how to get on a self-supporting basis and helping them to get there, which is the aim of modern charity. And, again, the $25,000, as necessary as it might be, would be an indication more of the failure of tbe society’s main object than of its success.


There are in modern society, as there have always been, misfits and incompetents, who, even in a country as prosperous in general as the United States is, cannot make a living. For them to live, someone has to supplement their efforts with money. There are a great many others, however, who are misfits where they are or incompetent in what they are trying to do, but who nevertheless can fit in somewhere and take care of themselves to their own benefit and society’s if they find the right opportunity.

Even among the aged who for one reason or another come to the charitable societies a surprising number can be aided so that their own efforts alone or supplemented by help from their relatives will put them on their feet.

Generally speaking, up to fifty years ago the laissez faire doctrine was held concerning poverty as well as business. Each family was supposed to look out for itself and, if it failed, to take the consequences, mitigated by what its members could expect as alms. And that philosophy still gives the greatest incentive and self-respect to those who succeed. But the penalty paid by those who fail is very terrible. The main object of modern social work is to prevent as many failures as possible.

Modern social work owes this conception largely to Mrs. Josephine Shaw Lowell. As a member of a committee of the State Board of Charities, Mrs. Lowell presented a report in 1881 for the New York City members of the Board. The report was based on a careful study of charitable work in the city. This review of the situation ‘led to the irresistible conclusion’ that there was at that time ‘inevitably great waste of energy, effort, and money owing to the want of coöperation among the societies which administer the charities of New York City,’ while the same cause operated ‘to encourage among the poor pauperism and degradation.’ The State Board of Charities authorized the New York City commissioners ‘to take such steps as they may deem wise to inaugurate a system of mutual help and coöperation among the societies engaged in teaching and relieving the poor of the city in their own homes.’

At this time the organizing of charity was in the minds of many. Societies, more or less like the London society, had been formed, — the first in Buffalo, — and by the end of 1881 there were twenty. The committee of the State Board appointed a committee on the organization of charities in the City of New York, of which Mrs. Lowell was a member. This committee prepared the constitution of the Charity Organization Society and established it in February 1882.

The first object of the Society was ‘to form a centre of intercommunication between the various churches and charitable agencies in the city, to foster harmonious coöperation between them, and to check the evils of the overlapping of relief.’ Another object was ‘to promote the general welfare of the poor by social and sanitary reforms and the inculcation of habits of providence and self-dependence.’ From the beginning the emphasis was put upon the careful, sympathetic study of the character and conditions affecting each person referred to the Society for help, to the end that such persons should become independent, self-supporting, and useful citizens. One of the first, efforts was to register all applicants for relief, in order that, they might not be subjected to the interference of numerous agencies and might not be exposed to the danger of becoming habitual beggars. This was a new emphasis, as was that of the necessity of recognizing that each human being had his own character, his own trials, temptations, and aptitudes, and that it was only by careful study of each person in the light of all his past and of his friends and relations that a wise plan could be made for his betterment.

Among the earliest members of the committees of the Society were Mr. Robert W. De Forest and the late Mr. Otto T. Bannard, who, as young men, thus became intimate friends and associates of Mrs. Lowell and with her developed the philosophy and practice of the Society, Mr. De Forest becoming president a few years later and Mr. Bannard vice president.

Since that time there have been established family-welfare agencies in practically every large city in the United States. The same general philosophy permeates them all. They are, moreover, loosely allied in a national organization which has annual conventions at which common problems and experiences are discussed. Moreover, there is in general a working agreement covering most of the United States, so that if a family that has been under the care of the Family Welfare Society in Boston moves to St. Louis and asks for aid there, the St. Louis Provident Association can get from the Family Welfare Society in Boston the facts in the case. This accomplishes two ends. It helps prevent families who make a profession of trying to impose on charitable agencies from succeeding, and, more important, it aids in helping families that can be helped.

One hundred and ninety-six of these family-case-work societies which reported their income and expenditures to the American Association spent about $13,300,000 in 1927. These societies form the backbone, in a sense, of modern American social effort. However, in number they are but a small percentage of the charitable organizations in the country. The Directory of Social Work for Baltimore and Maryland lists about 1200 agencies, but it includes county and state agencies and, so far as practicable, all agencies in the state. In the Directory of Social Agencies of Boston there are about 1200 agencies, but they include some of the City of New York because these are helpful to Boston people, just as the Baltimore Directory includes New York agencies because they are helpful to Maryland people. In New York the Directory of Social Agencies contains about 1800 agencies.

This represents an amazing and, I believe, unequaled outpouring of voluntary good will. It is a phenomenon unknown to most ancient civilizations and not altogether common in the world at present. The voluntary organizations devoted to the maintenance and improvement of our civilization are necessary just as business and government are necessary; they constitute an essential element in the warp and woof of the fabric of our particular kind of civilization. They are for the benefit of all classes of society, and include organizations for beautifying towns, often chiefly for the benefit of the wellto-do, museums for the rich as well as the poor, and welfare societies that help the poor to adjust themselves to their environment, as well as endeavor to improve that environment.


Our kind of government, universal education, great natural resources, and our enterprising people have made us politically stable and economically prosperous. How much have these voluntary efforts had to do with making the United States a better place to live in and its inhabitants contented and able to function more nearly to the limit of their capacities? And, in particular, how much has the increasingly scientific and effective care of the poor reduced the percentage of human discards from our complicated civilization and reduced the social infection that spreads from large masses of human failures in whom dissatisfaction with society, government, and the world in general is inherent?

A mathematical answer to this question I believe is impossible, as it is with most human problems, but I believe that anyone who looks a little under the surface into modern social work will agree that it is one of the essential elements of American life.

If our social-welfare activities were suddenly abolished, the immediate and serious discontent that would arise would convince those who now give little money, and less time and thought, to this part of our life that it is a part that has to be attended to.

To this some answer: ‘All right, I’ll give my part, but I don’t want my mail cluttered up with constant appeals for this, that, and the other charity. As a business man, I know that this is wasteful. Why don’t all these charities get together and save overhead?’

When the different vacuum-cleaner people, automobile sales agents, magazine publishers, hotels, hairdressers, and others stop cluttering up the mail of the busy man or woman, the charity societies will probably quit also, and for the same reason — that it does not pay. Until that time, if the charities stop, the hairdressers and grape-juice venders will get the money and the charities will not.

There is no painless way to give money for one who does not want to give it. The truth is, the really ‘hardboiled’ folk do not mind the appeals. It is those people who instinctively recognize that they owe something to these voluntary activities of society who mind them. They are confused by the number and uncertain as to which is the most deserving of their support. But it is a part of our life to have to find out how to decide this question, just as it is part of our life to have to decide which kind of ice machine or radio we are going to buy.

In collectivist, socialist, communist countries all these decisions of life are made for the individual. This is ‘the culture of making all things easy,’ to which Keyserling devotes an interesting chapter in Creative Understanding. As he points out, it is not a creative but a ‘liquidating’ culture. Nor is it a culture for an individualistic society. In a growing, individualistic country the individual makes these decisions for himself.

Nor would the simple formula of merger be certain to save overhead or improve the services of the welfare societies. These societies are working with individual human elements each one of which has to be handled differently. There is no standardized method of quantity production possible. Each group of social workers will need the same amount of supervision whatever the scope of the organization they are in, and the bulk of the work is done in units of reasonably efficient size. Of course there are small societies, some perhaps too small to be economically run, just as there are small businesses of that kind. In both fields many of the small enterprises die, and in both fields the small enterprises provide men, women, and ideas essential to their respective fields. There are, of course, combinations and mergers going on among the welfare organizations as there are in business, but the wisdom of such unions depends upon the particular circumstances covering each case. There is no general ride that consolidation is necessarily good in the social field unless one is a believer in the unification of all social work, which would almost inevitably put it in the hands of the state and necessitate its being supported by taxation. The results of this are almost certain to be a reduction of its flexibility and an increase in the number of paid workers.

During the war, the financial necessities of welfare work were greatly increased, and as an emergency measure the community-chest idea — that is, the collection of all the money for all the charities in a given city in one grand drive — spread rapidly over the country. After the money had been collected the directors of the community chest divided it among the different charities. Everything during war time gets to be more or less autocratic, and the method of collection for the community chests was no exception — people were given quotas and pretty nearly forced by public pressure to pay their assignments. When the war and its emotional state were over, the community chests naturally mitigated the pressure they had exercised on individual givers, and there has followed an interesting experiment to see whether one central body can raise the money for all the charities of a city in sufficient quantities, and, having raised it, distribute it satisfactorily to the different agencies. The welfare chests have a national organization which endeavors to find the solution of the problems that arise out of this form of financing.

The community chest, being confined primarily to the raising of money, saves the time and effort of the lay or non-paid and non-technical part of the welfare agencies, for it is the lay members of these organizations rather than the professional members who raise money. The fact that the lay members have raised the money has given them the control of the policies of the societies and has also led them to scrutinize with considerable care the actual spending of the money they raised. In doing this they have learned much of actual conditions from the paid staffs. The close coöperation of these two groups has been of great benefit to both. The professional workers, accustomed to seeing mainly the unsuccessful in life, and the lay members, accustomed generally to seeing the successful side of life, form exceedingly good correctives to each other. Whether the same amount of interest can be maintained permanently among the lay members of a society whose budget — and, therefore, whose policy — is circumscribed by the decisions of a community chest is one of the problems that this form of financing has raised.

It is, of course, most desirable that the maximum lay interest be maintained in all these societies, for without that — although motivated by high ideals of service and guided by technical experience — they would tend to become out of touch with the time and tide of the public mood.


There are fundamentally only two methods of attending to those who in our society cannot and do not attend to themselves successfully without help. One is by government action supported by taxation. The other is by the voluntary action of people interested enough to devote time and money to this part of American life. The Federal Government, the states, counties, and cities, already do part of this work, just as Government conducts such business as road building, handling the mails, and so on. However, I believe it is as sound a principle in welfare work as it is in other activities that in America governmental agencies should do nothing that other agencies can and will do. And I believe that we have to find out where that line is to be drawn in America from American experience. That the state performs certain welfare functions in the Scandinavian countries and Germany is not a valid argument that the state should perform those functions here, for neither the people nor the conditions are the same. We have an American method of voluntary action for meeting the welfare needs of our people that is in keeping with our social and political philosophy and in many respects has been so successful that students from our schools of social work are drafted to all parts of the world. While we should learn all we can from the experience of other countries, the problem before us is not one of changing to some other system based on European experience, but of continuing to develop our own method.

The test of the voluntary method, of course, is the volunteers. The business man is becoming more and more the dominant element in American economic life. The question, then, is how much will business men give of their time, thought, influence, and money to the support of welfare work. I mean business men in their personal capacities, not acting for business corporations. The corporations have the obligation to their employees to fix their wages, conditions of work, and the like, so as to create as few human failures as possible, but the best that these activities can accomplish is to lessen the problem. How far the business man participates as an individual is the real test of the matter.

If business men generally should adopt the view that welfare work was no concern of theirs, the organizations which have done so much to keep American society healthy at the bottom would fail. But there is no likelihood of such a catastrophe. These societies are gaining each year. They will go on; but do they get the participation by business men generally to make them as effective as they should be? At present I am rather inclined to doubt it, but I am quite certain that there will be a growing participation in the future. I base this upon the maturing philosophy of American business.

American business does not accord the largest respect to those who confine themselves entirely to material success. Business success accompanied by voluntary public services—either for the government or in education, charity, or any one of a number of other activities for the public benefit — is accorded more distinction than business success alone. Mr. Alexander Legge, who gave up the presidency of the International Harvester Company to serve as Chairman of the Federal Farm Board, is a fine example. Mr. Rosenwald, a wise philanthropist and successful merchant, is a more successful American than if he had been a merchant only, even if in that activity he had been still more successful than he has been.

John S. Kennedy perpetuated his memory by the gift and the endowment of the United Charities Building in New York far more than by his success as a banker. Frederick H. Goff of Cleveland developed a Community Foundation, a method of amassing gifts for charity and using them for the best purpose, which has been followed by other cities. He will be known as the founder of the Community Trust when his work as lawyer and banker is forgotten. Adolph Lewisohn is known for his life work for prison reform and other charities by many who will never know of his contribution to the material development of this country.

In boom times and in new businesses many men amass large wealth without a large philosophy to accompany it. They set out with a fortune as a goal and, having achieved it, are somewhat at a loss to know how to make life worth while. Beyond a certain amount, the material things which the money will buy are subject to the law of rapidly diminishing returns in human satisfaction. To gain more than the community’s respect for business ability, a man must give something more than that to the community. The philosophy of the business world now asks for more than financial success before it will accord high honor in respect and esteem. This fact means that a growing number of the leading men in the business world have a maturer personal philosophy than the naïve belief that through the accumulation of wealth alone a satisfactory life can be achieved. It even goes further than this. The belief that a man can devote to business all his energies from the time he begins to work until he is fifty or sixty and then devote himself to the working out of his dreams of what he will do after he quits business — this, too, is losing ground. It becomes more and more apparent that unless a man starts these activities while he is still in business and fairly young, he rarely has the ability to achieve much of value to the community or to himself in their pursuit.

The growing conception of a more mature philosophy of life among business men is the chief reason for assurance of their increasing activity in the voluntary welfare and charitable work of the country, and one of the main reasons for believing in the continued growth and improvement of that distinctively American method of meeting the needs of the country.

The agitation for state old-age pensions brings in concrete form the question whether the people of the United States wish to solve the old-age problem along the lines of their own development or to abandon this field to governmental action which must of necessity confine itself practically to the dispensing of funds on a non-discriminating basis.