« PreviousContinue »
not as yet a grave one, and the attention of the nation has scarcely been called to it; here, where it is certainly the darkest cloud on our horizon, one may well be surprised that so little alarm is felt, and so little anxiety shown to ascertain and observe true principles of action.
It is more pleasant to call attention to the merits of the American system, and point out how distinctly the success of the expedients adopted there confirms the views which have been put forward by some of our most thoughtful publicists here in England. What has been done in Boston illustrates very forcibly the advantages of combining the action of the public office for relief with that of private charitable organizations. Each office renders incalculable services to the other in collecting information respecting the condition of the poor generally; as well as the characters and circumstances of individual applicants. All that the Overseers know is at the disposal of the Provident Association ; all that has been
been collected and recorded by the visitors of the Association can at once be used by the Overseers. Both bodies therefore can feel more security that they are either relieving or refusing relief on adequate grounds; and there is little or no danger that both should be relieving the same person at the same time. It becomes possible for them to make a division of labor, and to turn the efforts of each organization to the quarter where the need is for the time greatest. The citizens acquire confidence in bodies which work with so much regularity and in such clear light. Indiscriminate private almsgiving is repressed by the knowledge that the work of relief is in competent hands, and the zeal of individuals can be turned to account in the service of a society whose accumulated experience and fixed principles of action enable it to direct such zeal wisely. Hardly less conspicuous is the gain of having the other minor charitable societies in such close local juxtaposition and familiar communication with the Overseers and the Provdent Association. When an able-bodied man applies for relief to the Overseers, they have only to lead him across the passage to the rooms of the Industrial Aid Society, and his merits will there be at once tested by the offer of work. When a poor woman has been visited by one of the Provident visitors, he can send her to the general agent, suggesting that sewing might profitably be given her. The agent directs her to the room of the Ladies' Sewing Circle, also in the Charity Building, where her request for work will be attended to, or possibly commends her to the care of the Ladies' City Relief Agency, telling them whatever the visitor has ascertained. All this goes on under the roof of the Charity Building; and, as other benevolent societies are allowed to use its vacant rooms for their meetings, the members of all these get accustomed to look on the building as the centre of charitable action for all Boston; they group themselves more and more round the leading agencies which work from thence, and by degrees come to understand the principles on which relief ought to be conducted. Considering in how many ways co-operation increases the effectiveness of each body of workers, and how essential local contiguity is to co-operation, one is not surprised to find that the Bostonians look upon the establishment of the Charity Building as the beginning of a new era in their municipal administration. The vast size of London, and the multifariousness of the benevolent agencies which must be kept on foot in it, would make it impossible for us to follow the example of Boston exactly in this matter; but the principle might well be applied both here and in the other great pauper-ridden cities of England and Scotland.
New York, although the management of all its public institutions, corrective as well as charitable, is fortunately vested in the same board, has no such system of combined voluntary and official action as that which has been described at Boston. But New York, not less than Boston, supplies very satisfactory evidence of the possibility of organizing district visiting on a great scale, * and of securing, by means of a trained staff of volunteers, the personal examination of every case in which relief is applied for, and the appointment of the kind of relief which is needed. The city of Manhattan Island has now nearly a million souls; it has grown with unexampled rapidity ; its pauperism is of a bad type; its citizens are absorbed fully as much as ours in business and in social enjoyments. But the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor has found no great difficulty in keeping abreast
* In mentioning this, I cannot refrain from referring to Miss Stephen's admirable book, The Service of the Poor. Its immediate subject is the utility of Sisterhoods, but it abounds with thoughtful and judicious remarks which bear upon the general question.
of the work to be done; its organization by districts and sections has been extended over the new quarters that have sprung up and has been strengthened in the old haunts of indigence; and the scantily manned central office seems able to hold all the strings in its hand, and direct the four hundred visitors on principles whose soundness is approved by their success in keeping pauperism in check. The tendency of the visitors, one hears, is towards a rather too liberal dispensation of help; but this error, which longer experience constantly tends to correct, is no great price to pay for the services of so many private citizens, -services which are of the utmost reflex benefit to themselves and the class they belong to.
In urging the importance of never giving relief except after an investigation into the applicant's circumstances and history, and the extreme care to be shown in making gifts of money, it is hardly necessary to appeal to American experience, our own is so ample. No maxims, however, are more earnestly insisted on by those who direct the Boston and New York Associations. They absolutely refuse to give relief, except by or on the specific report of the visitor for the district in which the applicant resides; and such visitor is bound to visit the house before he either relieves or reports. Both they and the official Overseers of the Poor dilate in their reports on the dangers attending all out-door relief, and exhort the visitors and charitable citizens generally to be exceedingly cautious in giving any help except that which is obviously of a temporary character, sufficient to help a family, so to speak, over the stile, and set them again in the way to help themselves. In Boston, at least, public out-door relief seems to be entirely confined to the sick and to helpless women.
In the matter of in-door public relief, the Americans seem to effect a great deal of good by the marked distinction they draw between the almshouse and the workhouse. The former is in the towns fairly comfortable (in the country it is often very much the reverse*), and the infirm and aged admitted there are subjected
* I saw only one country almshouse, the rather wretched one of Tomkins County, N. Y., a few miles from Ithaca; but it may be gathered from Professor Dwight's valuable paper in the Transactions of the American Social Science Association, that the condition of these establishments is generally unsatisfactory.
to no hard discipline. But the workhouse, whither a man who can work and won't work finds, himself despatched, is a very disagreeable place, practically, in fact, a house of correction. Its discipline is uniform and stringent, and as its inmates are all of them persons of obviously undeserving character, vagrants, drunkards, sturdy beggars, people who come there not through misfortune, but in virtue of a judicial sentence, or because they persist in claiming relief from the Overseers after being warned to help themselves, this stringency can be justly and fairly maintained, without yielding to those gusts of popular sentiment that disturb the administration of our workhouses, which are places of refuge for the unfortunate as well as the culpably idle.
The Industrial Aid Society of Boston is an institution which well deserves to be imitated in our English towns. It furnishes the best means of discriminating the well-intentioned from the idle and worthless pauper; and succeeds in relieving a great deal of distress in the healthiest way, by simply directing labor to the place where it is wanted. Acting in conjunction with the Overseers and the Provident Association, it disburdens them to a great extent of the care of the able-bodied poor, and saves infinite vexation and waste to honest immigrants by informing them of the market in which there happens to be, at the moment, a demand for their kind of labor. This can be done rather more easily in America than in England, work is so much more abundant, and wages so much higher. On the other hand, the distances to which laborers would have to be sent are in England by no means so great, and the more complex variety of our industries makes some such agency even more needed than in the States.
America is a country full of good works and labors of love; and there is much that is cheering in the vigor and ingenuity, as well as in the benevolence, with which indigence is relieved and crime grappled with in its great cities. In New York and Massachusetts, they are not only kept in check, but pauperism, at least, is being reduced, relatively to the increase of population.
All this is cheering. But it is disheartening to see pauperism at all in a new country, where it ought never to have been suffered to set its loathsome foot, and whence it might even now be expelled by the exercise of a little more foresight and resolu
tion. The same indisposition to take a comprehensive survey of phenomena, to deal with the sources of a disease instead of its symptoms, which is so often remarked in English policy, is also strong among the Americans ; partly from easy good-nature, partly from not understanding the danger, they are suffering the evils of the Old World to strike such deep root that it will be hard ever after to eradicate them. Intoxicated with the greatness of their country, happy in dilating on its material resources and the swiftness with which these have been developed, seeing all around them the trophies of their own restless activity, they have acquired an unbounded confidence in the future of the nation, and are in some danger of forgetting that even these resources must find a limit, and that they cannot alone insure the well-being and grandeur of a people, whose moral and social tone may possibly suffer from a too rapid growth in material prosperity. The old diseases of politics and society are quick to show themselves, more or less disguised in form but substantially the same, in all our colonies, and spread not less swiftly than the community they infect. A time will come when the causes which have produced pauperism in Europe will operate with hardly less intensity in America, when the best lands in the Mississippi valley will have been occupied, when all necessary railways, and other public works will have been executed, when the pressure of population will have become as great as it is now in England without the relief which in England emigration offers. If things are suffered to go on as now, and that incentive to sloth and vice, a poor-law, is maintained, the pauperism which is said to be already beginning to exist in Chicago and St. Louis will have swelled to dangerous proportions in those splendid cities, and have found its way, drawing a swarm of mischiefs in its train, to newer and as yet untouched centres of industry, to places like Dubuque and Minneapolis. American society is in many respects so much healthier, better, more stable than society in Europe, that one is loth to express anything but satisfaction in contemplating its future. Nevertheless, the question cannot but be asked, whether its merits are as great as they might have been, and ought to have been ; whether the most is being made of the unequalled advantages with which the nation started. In North American colonies