Our Brothers’ Keepers

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The hopes for the program appeared in the designs for New York’s and Boston’s relief systems. The poor, regardless of their moral standing or work history or residence, would receive aid only within an almshouse. Once inside this institution, they would learn order, discipline, and habits of work, the very traits the community had neglected to teach. The routine was to be precise and rigorous. An early morning bell would awaken the inmates, and another bell would signal the time for breakfast. They would go to their assigned seats at long mess tables, eat their meal, and then head for the workshop. There would be no drinking, loafing, or gambling; only honest living and steady labor. As Dr. Walter Channing told a group of Boston philanthropists in 1843, the almshouse was “a place where the tempted are removed from the means of their sin, and where the indolent (man), while he is usefully and industriously employed … by a regular course of life … is prepared for a better career when restored to liberty again.” The poor, after completing this regimen, would return to society girded as in an armor against temptation, ready to earn their keep.

The almshouse, however, never fulfilled its founders’ expectations. For one, its managers, generally recruited from the ranks of petty shopkeepers and small farmers, were ill trained to run an institution. For another, almost all of the inmates were not able-bodied loafers but the very old and decrepit and the very young. The routine that reformers had devised applied badly, and few were able to perform steady labor. So in short order the almshouse degenerated into a custodial institution, characteristically overcrowded, in sad disrepair, lacking all internal discipline and order, and cruel and punitive in its methods. A committee conducting a state-wide survey in New York reported in 1857: “The great mass of the poor houses are most disgraceful memorials of the public charity. Common domestic animals are usually more humanely provided for than the paupers in some of these institutions.”

Yet, despite the terrible gap between reformers’ ideology and institutional reality, almshouses not only persisted but proliferated in the last half of the nineteenth century. Everywhere their shadow fell over the lives of the poor, almost monopolizing public assistance. Part of the reason for their prevalence was the belief that institutional support was cheaper than home relief—and since the poor, by their immorality and lack of initiative, were responsible for their misery, officials did not have to be generous with provisions or accommodations. Indeed, should the almshouse become too comfortable —that is, less dreadful than the conditions in which the lowest-paid workers subsisted—the poor might flock to it. But even more vital to its popularity was the particular character of the inmates: starting about 1850, immigrants began to fill almshouse wards, and after 1870 they practically monopolized them. The poor-house became the preserve of broken immigrants—first the Irish, then the Italians, the Poles, and the Slavs. Native Americans turned their backs on the entire enterprise. If there had to be poor in America, then at least they ought to remain hidden behind sturdy brick walls.

The years of the progressive era marked a major shift in public attitudes and policies toward the poor. Beginning in the 1890’s and culminating in the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, a new and more complex understanding of the origins of dependency spread through the nation, together with a host of fresh alternatives to institutionalization. The innovations were the work of clergymen like Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, who preached a new social gospel; of social workers like Robert Hunter, Jane Addams, and Robert Woods, who practiced community work in their settlement houses; of sociologists like Margaret Byington and Crystal Eastman, who provided the first sophisticated and detailed studies of the causes and conditions of poverty; and of popularizers like Jacob Riis, who wrote newspaper articles and books to arouse the American conscience. Taken together, these groups influenced the thinking and responses of ordinary citizens and political leaders.