- Historic Sites
Our Brothers’ Keepers
In a society grown steadily more affluent over two centuries, the existence of the poor has raised some baffling questions and surprising answers
December 1972 | Volume 24, Issue 1
Still, the reformers themselves, and many more of their countrymen, could not completely escape a moralistic view of poverty. The equation of the immigrant with the poor kept alive the conviction that vice helped generate dependency. After all, one had only to walk through an ethnic ghetto to discover the omnipresence of taverns, beer halls, dance halls, and houses of prostitution. Even Robert Hunter, as sympathetic an observer as once can find in this period, maintained the older distinction between the worthy and the unworthy poor. “There is unquestionably,” he conceded, “a poverty which men deserve, and by such poverty men are perhaps taught needful lessons. It would be unwise to legislate out of existence … that poverty which penalizes the voluntarily idle and vicious.” And progressives, like others before and after them, could not altogether reconcile the presence of poverty with their deep sense of the munificence of American life. A tone of condescension entered their rhetoric, reflecting a certain disdain not only for the “wretched refuse” of European shores but also for those who had not been clever or ambitious enough to profit in the land of opportunity.
Despite such doubts, reformers did put an end to the almshouse monopoly, establishing new procedures that kept at least some of the poor within the community. The persons who benefited immediately were widows with small children—the group least suspect among the needy. In 1909 President Roosevelt convened the White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children and happily publicized its major findings. “Poverty alone should not disrupt the home,” he announced. “Parents of good character, suffering from temporary misfortune, and above all deserving mothers… deprived of the support of the normal breadwinner, should be given such aid as may be necessary to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of their children.” Tothisend, Illinois in 1911 passed a widows’ pension bill, and by the close of World War I nearly every industrial state had followed its example. The worthy widow and her children would no longer suffer separation and incarceration in almshouses and orphan asylums.
Reformers also moved to protect the lower classes both on the job and in their communities, to enable them to enjoy more of the advantages of industrialism. They enacted accident insurance to compensate injured laborers and regulated the number of hours women and children could work. They passed stringent building and fire codes to offset the most glaring dangers of slum living. They also tried to rescue the children of the poor from their parents’ fate, enacting compulsory school laws and establishing a minimum age (ranging from twelve to sixteen) for factory work.
There was an enormous amount progressives did not do. They paid little attention to the plight of the black, his economic or social disabilities, and they almost completely ignored the rural poverty of tenant farmers, share-croppers, and migrant laborers. They neither enacted health-care programs nor extended government pension provisions to the general work force. Although proposals for unemployment compensation and retirement benefits were heard between 1890 and 1914 (and indeed, several European countries were already administering them), no such advances were made here. Even the innovations that did occur were carefully circumscribed. Widows’ pensions were limited to only the most deserving, so that mothers whose husbands had deserted them were not eligible, nor those with illegitimate children. As a result the majority of the poor still had to rely upon the limited funds of private charities, or turn to public relief for some coal or wood, or suffer a stint in the almshouse. Nevertheless, the progressives did signal a new departure. In attitude and practice, it was they who first broke with tradition.
Few advances in policy or thought occurred during the’i92o’s. In fact, given the severe tensions that pervaded the nation, it is noteworthy that the moderate advances of the progressives were not eradicated. This was the decade when the K.K.K. and the temperance movement and immigration restriction reached the zenith of their power and appeal, and anti-alien, antiurban sentiments also led to a resurgence of harsh and critical judgments on the poor, especially those who were first- or second-generation immigrants. If only they would stop drinking, gambling, and paying obeisance to Rome, the argument went, if only they would become full-fledged Americans, then poverty would disappear. To be sure, a few social critics who did not embrace these prejudices continued to circulate among themselves analytic studies of the poor in the best reformist tradition. Some explored the most efficient methods for organizing a national old-age assistance and pension program; others undertook the first investigations of conditions in black ghettos and among tenant farmers. And an occasional state legislature did manage to widen the eligibility requirements for widows’ pensions. But in all, the 1920’s was not an auspicious time to innovate, and the public achievement against poverty was not impressive.