The Disease of Charity

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OUR charities are the result of the experience of eighteen hundred years. Are they a real good at all?

There is a book about the size of the New Testament, a very sad book, yet it is only a directory; a directory of the charities in the city of New York; a sort of New Testament of the gospel of land owning. It is impossible to consider all its thousand agencies; let us take some which are types. You will find your own pet charity in the ranks.

The "fresh air fund" is well managed and on a grand scale, "the most beautiful charity of modern times." In the last five years a newspaper has taken not less than sixty thousand children into the country for two weeks each, at a cost of one hundred and thirty thousand dollars. Other funds have taken perhaps as many more; suppose they have taken ten times as many. Still the little ones die, one in every three; and death is not the worst for children "whose angels are always beholding the face of Our Father which is in heaven," yet who grow up, in the natural course of events, to fill the hospitals, the prisons, and the brothel.

If they were only to die! Poor little children! Think of the mother who sees her darlings, not growing up, but getting old, diseased, unclean, depraved; who knows that their life must make them so, yet cannot change it—can only get them tickets for fresh air.

"We may establish numberless fresh air funds, but though they revive some of the little ones and bring new health for a year, we can reach, at best, but a few of the people and but a small tithe of their woes. If the excursions do help many and give fresh store of life, what is the effect? To increase population; to increase the price of land; to make competition still fiercer; to bring the wolf still closer to the door.

There is no end to fresh air charity. When have we done all that can be done? Even now one charity tries to take whole families. We might give money enough to take them all to the country permanently; that would be but to pump out a well; more spring up to fill their places, they themselves will flow back again to the lowest level.

Neither would it be any remedy to build suburban towns— that is but to transplant the weed; nor to build model tenements. It must sadden the bitterest cynic to know that, so far, model tenements have but shown that no ability and care can make five per cent on the amount actually invested in them, unless it be made by land speculation—that it is more profitable to the landlord to house men like dogs and to treat them like wolves than to give them decent habitations. But did model tenements pay never so well and were they multiplied indefinitely, it is the attractiveness of the city as compared to the country that brings the overcrowding. Improved tenements would but make the city more attractive, and bring still greater crowds. Further, if the buildings are good, they will raise the value of the land, and consequently, the surrounding rents. In order to get the space in which to put them, we must tear down swarming rookeries, whose occupants will still further raise the rents of every slum by crowding them the more.

Overcrowding is a cause of low wages. Competition for laborers brings up wages to the full earning capacity; competition for work in every place brings wages down to the point where mere subsistence is possible. As long as we have overcrowding, and the glut of the labor market, St. Andrew's stands,<ref>St. Andrew's Coffee Stands: "Its charity is indiscriminate, tends rather to support tramps in idleness and attract them in larger numbers to our city than to aid the worthy poor."—From the Circular of the Charity Org. Society.</ref> soup kitchens, even Thanksgiving turkeys and charitable Christmas gifts, will surely bring down the rate of wages. These things make living cheap; make more attraction in city life, and bring more people there wanting to work at the lowest wages on which they can live.<ref>"A large number of people without means of support or family ties constantly tend lo the city and diminish by their competition the meagre earnings obtainable by a large class of resident work-people. They do not know that by coming to the city they probably incur destitution, disease, and suffering.

"Worse than these, a multitude of vagrants are allowed to come to the city and permitted to remain here, who, by idleness, debauchery, and disease, add to the pressing demand upon charitable persons and associations. These should be committed to the public Institutions for a sufficiently long term, as the only means of relieving the city from their pressure and of discouraging others of a like class from coining here.

"In addition to the destitution caused by these incompetent or worthless people from outside, the unskilled resident laborers of our city can earn sufficient for self-support only by continuous work and frugal habits. Their labor is precarious, being interrupted by loss of Jobs and inclement weather; for the average time of their occupation, as indicated by a report of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor, issued some fears ago, and dealing with permanency of employment, is but 266 days in a year, illness or accident renders them temporarily unable to support their families."—Circular of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. Concerning Unemployed Labor. February 12,1892.</ref>

We may multiply free eating houses and lodgings; we may have poorhouses and endless means of relief, but, as long as we have a glutted labor market, we but make living cheaper and enable the workman to offer his services in competition for what will afford him a more and more degraded "living." Nay, we bring in more people willing to work, to marry, and raise children, because when work or wages fail, they have the soup kitchens,<ref>Plague, pestilence, and famine together could not work such Irreparable harm as fifty free soup houses. The danger in gifts and clothing is that people will cease to try to exert themselves and will become miserable dependents on the bounty of others, losing their self-respect and manhood.—"Philanthropy," by Richard T. Ely, Ph.D., In Baltimore "Sun," March 9,1887.</ref> For where there is even one more worker than can be employed, he must bid against the rest for the work, and that one will have the job who, by freely using the soup kitchens, can exist upon the least pay.

The laborers appreciate this themselves. When someone shows how a family of eight persons could be comfortably supported on a dollar a day, by using some patent philanthropic cook stove, it raises a clamor from the workingmen, because they quite correctly reasoned that if they could be supported on a dollar a day it would be no long time before they would get but a dollar a day. Wages will be just what, using all aids, the laborer can live upon.

Says Mr. E. N. Kellogg:

At the beginning of the present century English pauperism increased with great rapidity, and in some seventeen years the ratepayers' burden was doubled—a tax that in some instances amounted to a confiscation of ratable property. Whether as a consequence or a cause of this increase, the justices of the peace adopted the expedient of making allowances from the parish treasury for insufficient wages, and fixed a standard to which the weekly income of paupers should be raised out of the rates. They justified this course by the argument that it was cheaper to provide a partial than an entire maintenance for the dependents upon the parish. The effect was disastrous, for it appeared in the general reduction of wages, which brought the most industrious to the brink of starvation and destroyed the motive of self-support.

Charity deliberately reduces wages. The Annuals of the Dorchester (Massachusetts) Conference in 1888, says:

We strive to make every applicant for aid feel that work of any kind is better than idleness, and that to accept the smallest compensation and to perform the least service well, not only helps to supply present needs, but is the surest way to something better.

Charity feeding interferes with legitimate business. The London coffee stands, which are run for profit, give as cheap a meal as your St. Andrew's Guild, and support those who manage them. It is natural that these people in a fair competition will beat your charitable establishments. What chance has a committee, meeting once a month and employing a superintendent, against a good business man who gives his days and nights to skimp and save to make his dairy attractive to his customers? But you compete with him unfairly, because the loss in your business comes out of the pockets of the rich.

Nor will it help to raise the standard of living—to teach the people art and aesthetics and to cultivate their tastes; "to humanize them"; to raise wages by teaching the Chinaman to want ten cent cigars and mint juleps.

If the amount of work to be done or the amount to be paid for it is limited, then increased wants and a higher standard of living increase hardships and immorality. If men cannot keep wives as they are used to be kept, they will have establishments without keeping wives.

We furnish free dispensaries, or dispensaries where medicines are sold at cost to all comers, or only to the members of the ring. These are merely different ways of distributing burdens. Such dispensaries make living very hard for the small druggist and the young doctor. Poor young fellow! he has to earn his bread. Can you blame him if, as often happens, he neglects a pauper "case" to attend to some one whose appearance holds out some hope of a future "patient"?

At least, then, says someone, we may provide free hospitals. Even this, which has been regarded as the first step in philanthropic civilization, fosters improvidence, is greatly abused by those who are really able to pay, and is the subject of continual mismanagement. In a natural state of affairs men would be able to take care of their own sick; the poor generally do so now. Any district visitor will tell you that were all the invalids taken from the tenement houses to the hospitals, ten times the hospital beds would not hold them.

The same objection applies to blind asylums and homes for the aged and infirm, which work against unselfish care for the dependent; in itself an ennobling influence. Separate the family—ship the old mother off to the charity home; so nice, so comfortable; no more worry for her—or about her. After a life of self-denial she lingers lonely and dies forgotten. Nor can we artificially provide enough homes.

"The respectable homes for the aged in New York City are filled with inmates. They all have waiting lists, and even when every preliminary is arranged it is a difficult matter to secure admission."<ref>Forty-eighth Annual Report of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor.</ref>

By such institutions we oppose the law of natural selection, which is almost our only law of progress, moral or physical. Under guard and subjected to regulations, those unfitted to survive, can survive, and drag out such a poor existence as, notwithstanding its palliations, is possible in an institution. We are preserving lives which but spread disease, and raising up a species of the human species which is blind, and perpetuating a variety which is dumb. Then we set them to making baskets to be sold at a little less than the market price.

We have elaborate societies for finding employment for discharged convicts. Like most other charity societies, these destroy the support of many by taking away the work of employment agencies, and usually get a man into a place for which some one else is better fitted. Why should a criminal have a situation gotten for him, when he must thereby displace an honest man t Even to teach a trade to criminals when our apprentice system prevents an honest boy from learning one, is clearly unfair.

In the same way we kindly get women to do men's work and thereby reduce men's wages. When there is competition, women, almost all of whom have some one upon whom they can in part depend for support, can naturally afford to take the work more cheaply than men. Their competition, therefore, reduces wages, just as surely as prison labor does. Where, then, is the benefit of your society for teaching women on a philanthropic basis to do at a lower rate the clerical work and manufacturing usually done by men?<ref>There is something far more injurious to our race than poverty: it is misplaced charity. Of every thousand dollars spent upon so-called objects of charity, it is not an overestimate to say that nine hundred of it had better been thrown into the sea. It is so given as to encourage the growth of those evils from which springs most of the misery of human life. The relations of human society are so complex, so interwoven, that the creation of a new agency intended to benefit one class almost inevitably operates to the injury of another. The latter being the the growth of natural causes, is by far the most important to preserve. The more one studies the question of wealth and poverty, the more difficult does it seem to interfere judiciously with existing conditions.—"Gospel of Wealth." Andrew Carnegie.</ref> Such charities are a gross injustice to those who have honestly paid for an education which ought to bring them in a revenue; and the workers object to it. "When the people complain, the people are always right."

Help, then, only those who are utterly helpless—who compete with no one—women and children deserted by husband or father?

In England it has been found that to supply relief in such cases, and to treat them as one would wish to, tends to encourage men to desert their families. Not only does a man leave his family thoughtlessly, but he leaves them on purpose, sometimes with the collusion of his wife, because they will be better taken care of in his absence. All "help" tends to similar results.

Foundling hospitals have already been abandoned by enlightened charity, because their help in disposing of children increases the number of foundlings. One by one, charity will abandon nearly all its present works.

In our giving we walk between dread and terror. If we give so that the gift is felt to be charity, we surely degrade and pauperize him who takes it; if we disguise it as a loan or a pension, we smooth the way to dependence and discourage self-help.

"Paupers may be made." Ask the president of a farmer's club how to raise beets, and he will tell you the very best plan. Ask how to raise paupers. The latest book on the Poor Law, by T. W. Fowle, says (p. 41): "There is a growing conviction that in any case the amount of pauperism depends, not on the circumstances of the working classes, but upon the facility with which help may be obtained." A witty archbishop said: "If it pays a man to work, he'll work; if to beg, he'll beg."

The list is almost exhausted when we come down to the flower charities, to charity balls, and fancy bazaars.

The English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel recently declined to receive the profits of a church fair. If I were the devil I would attend all such performances and give liberally, so that all the expenses of the church would be paid in that beautiful way, and no one need practice any self-denial at all. That is rotten. God gives no commands to make festivals in order to assist in wheedling the world out of a few of its ill-gotten pennies for Him who says, "The silver is mine, and the gold is mine," and "the cattle upon a thousand hills."

Prison reform is attractive. Nothing can be said against making prisons habitable. But this is not charity, unless carried to the point of making criminal life as good as honest work. To make delinquency the easiest way of getting warmth and food, is clearly unwise. Thousands commit small crimes every autumn, merely to be sent to warm prisons.

Charity does not aim at wickedness or irreligion; so that it is irrelevant to say that to grapple with want we must make men better or holier—the best that charity can do is to relieve misery.

With all we are palliating the most violent symptoms of misery, and encouraging those who have forgotten God, to say that we are much better off than we ever were before, are still improving, or, that if we are not, it is the will of the Lord and that, therefore, we have but to go on heaping up more money still. Nay, worse, we are setting that love to distribute soup tickets, which might have redeemed the world.

Yet, if poverty, misery, and sickness are here, we cannot let men starve or die in our sight. True. If we can prevent it, we should not let them die, but if we make the sick better at the cost of making the well sick; if we make the poor comfortable at the cost of making the comfortable poor; if we ease misery only by shifting the load, what have we accomplished?

We cannot blind these things by looking at the loveliness of charity. One thing affects the other. Foolish laws bring upon us hospitals, dispensaries, asylums, homes, refuges, free meals, so that the deserving may find fuel here, medicine there, clothing elsewhere, and all they need by visiting six societies every week; these are free, but paid for in heavy taxes, and all to do those things which men would do of themselves and do much better, did we but let them use the opportunities for labor that nature has provided and did we but leave to them the wealth we now take from them in those same taxes.

Bolton Hall.


  • Bolton Hall, “The Disease Of Charity,” The American Journal of Politics 4, no. 3 (March 1894): 225-232.