Our Brothers’ Keepers


The new view toward poverty rested first on an understanding of the shortcomings of the economy—the periodic unemployment that forced many laborers below the subsistence line, the prevalent low wages that did not allow even the thrifty among them to accumulate savings. (“Many, many thousand families,” wrote Robert Hunter in Poverty [1904], “receive wages so inadequate that no care in spending, however wise it may be, will make them suffice for the family needs.”) It also was sensitive to the debilitating effects of slums, the crowded and unsanitary tenements through which disease rapidly spread, particularly tuberculosis, robbing households of their main providers. (“Penury and poverty,” declared Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives [1890], “are wedded everywhere to dirt and disease.”) It emphasized the dangers inherent in work itself—the inevitable accidents that occurred when managers neglected to install safety devices; when employees were crowded into sweatshops that were firetraps; when laborers, after ten or twelve hours on the job, grew fatigued and careless. (We must do something, pleaded Crystal Eastman in Work Accidents and the Law [1910], to insure that modern industry is conducted “without the present wholesale destruction of the workers.”) Critics recognized, too, the general misery of life for those at the bottom of society, a misery that drove them to the tavern to gain a temporary respite from their troubles. And they understood how generation after generation would remain trapped in poverty: families, hard pressed to make ends meet, would put young children out to work, depriving them of the education necessary to take skilled jobs. In brief, these reformers taught Americans to think of the needy as the laboring poor who, as Robert Hunter put it, “live miserably … [and] know not why. They work sore, and yet gain nothing.”


To some degree these conclusions almost forced themselves upon social observers. Forays into the urban slums, whether to bring the gospel to the unchurched or to ameliorate their need, taught ministers and charity workers that the poor were victims not of immorality but of forces beyond their control. The deeper sociologists probed, the more apparent it became that the moralism traditionally characterizing American attitudes toward poverty explained only a fraction of the problem. Ten million Americans, it was reliably estimated in 1904—an eighth of the population—earned less than subsistence incomes, and clearly the great majority of them were feeling the effects of social and economic dislocations. When newly graduated college students went into the ghettos to learn about the poor and to offer their help, whether at Chicago’s Hull House or New York’s Henry Street Settlement, they too immediately recognized the many disadvantages that the poor could not escape. To all these commentators it was obvious that America had become, once and for all, an urban and industrial nation, with a frontier that was now practically settled and, given successive waves of immigrants, a surplus of labor. The emphasis of earlier reformers on personal reformationandrehabilitationnow seemed largely irrelevant, and the isolation of the poor in an almshouse an inadequate response.

The new outlook on poverty also reflected special fears and hopes for American society. The majority of the urban poor (and it was the city’s needs that monopolized attention) were also immigrants. To reformers, the newcomers represented both a major threat to the national well-being and an unusual opportunity to do good. Two intimately related problems demanded resolution: the immigrant had to be assimilated into American life, and his standard of living had to be improved. The prospect of failure was haunting, for progressives were deeply suspicious of the aliens, disturbed by many of their idiosyncratic customs (from their strange modes of dress to worshipping in Roman Catholic churches), and frightened that they might act on foreign principles (be it a slavish obedience to Rome or a dedicated allegiance to European socialism). And yet, these critics were also confident that American society had the resources to counter these threats. They pinned their hopes on the opportunities for all men to climb the ladder of success and for all families to enjoy an unprecedented material well-being. Once the several barriers that penned the immigrant into his ghetto poverty were removed, once ambitious and energetic foreigners enjoyed the full chance to succeed, then the nation’s stability and security would be assured.