The New Charity

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The word charity has been perverted to mean more or less intelligent alms. We have evolved a theory of systematic beneficence whose shibboleths are “self help" and “relief by work,” and we are tempted to assume that if we keep to those and recognize by “philanthropy and five per cent “ that we must cope with the forces of the world through the laws of the world, we have only to do enough charity to effectually improve the condition of the poor.

Yet the experiment has been thoroughly tried already. Mr. J. H. Crooker says that in China in the year 150 B. C. there were refuges for the aged and sick poor, free schools for poor children, free eating-houses for wearied laborers, associations for the distribution of second-hand clothing, and societies for paying the expenses of marriage and burial among the poor.

These seem simple and natural charities, and except the free eating-houses and the payment of marriage expenses of the poor, would he approved by our modern charity organizations; yet if they have not helped to degrade Chinese labor, at least they have not prevented its degeneration. It is true that much of this charity was not enlightened, yet the testimony as to the effects of even the best forms of our own charity is not such as to assure us that the results, in the long run, would have been touch better if it had been so. For instance, Mrs. Josephine Shaw Lowell says “It is not only or chiefly selfishness which should lead every large city to dread an influx of the homeless and unemployed; for in the nature of things little can he done for them which will not finally be more of an injury than a benefit both to them and to others.” (Poverty and its Relief, Twenty-second National Conference of Charities, 1895.)

To those who nevertheless believe that this “new charity” will regenerate the world its least encouraging feature is that even if it is true charity it is not new charity.

About 1711 the Armenstadt, or poor help, was established in Hamburg as a department of the Sanitary Association, and the policy of personal supervision of the poor was inaugurated.

When public sentiment had been educated up to a point which made it practicable, Prof. J. G. Busch, aided by Lessing, Klopstock, Von Voght, and other able helpers, organized the charities of Hamburg and also marshaled the workers, who consisted of large numbers of the wealthy and respectable people of the great free city.

They created a central bureau, with a clearing house such as we have, to prevent duplication of relief. They subdivided the city into sixty districts, each of which was under the care of three regular workers, so that there was one visitor to each six hundred of the whole population. They put in operation “relief by work,” “sanitary reform,” and “industrial training;” in all of which they had the fullest and heartiest help of the legislative power.

They understood the danger of pauperization, and were even in advance of us in that everything given to the poor was considered as a loan. They provided trained nurses, who went out to the homes of the poor. Artificial work for the unemployed, just like ours, and, late; agricultural experiment stations, were established. They had the hospital, the home for the aged, and what we might well imitate, a medical commission to examine applicants who claimed physical disability. They had a crèche or day nursery, free schools, a building loan fund, and an improved housings committee. These advanced thinkers appreciated that pauperism is easier to prevent than to cure, and so gave particular attention to the children, beginning with compulsory education, for which they provided sufficient accommodation.

Nor was Hamburg lacking in the scientific spirit. The volunteer visitors were instructed to collect information concerning the state of the poor — the causes of poverty, the amount of rent alt the census particulars about the children, means of support, scale of living, relatives able to help, character and history, and many other items such as we gather in our “case-counting.” As Crooker says, “more recent experiments have hardly made any important additions to the philosophy or methods of poor-relief there put in operation. The original Hamburg system of 1788 contained all the essential principles and methods of that scientific poor-relief by which the workers of to-day are able to produce good results.” (“Problems of American Society,” Ellis, Boston.)

None of our difficulties, alms-giving, the reluctance of private corporations, especially churches, to co-operate, appear to have been unknown to Hamburg. Finally they spent $70,000 a year in a city of about one hundred thousand persons, at a cost for operating expenses of less than three dollars in the hundred.

Neither was this great work obscure nor forgotten. Francis II of Austria made Von Voght, one of the leaders, a baron in recognition of his Organizing services in Vienna. Napoleon put him in charge of the charities of Paris in 1808, and later Marseilles followed suit in deferring to him. Au account of the system was widely circulated in 1796 in London. Two years later Malthus noticed it in his book on Population, and in the same year it was reviewed in J. M. Good’s “Dissertation on Maintaining and Employing the Poor.” Count Ruin ford borrowed his s3-stem from it. In miming through the extensive literature upon the reform of the poor-laws from 1798 to 1820, we find everywhere similar evidence of an acquaintance with Von Voght’s pamphlet and of the profound influence of the Hamburg institution.

Why, then, it may be asked, has organized charity, so intelligent, so extensive, and so long continued, made so little improvement in social conditions?

Perhaps because organized charity, looking as it necessarily does to the politician or to those who profit by the low rates of labor, has been none in its investigations to underestimate the causes of misery which are chargeable to those classes, and in seeking to remove such causes as it does see, habitually avails (because it is itself a part of “things as they are") anything which seems radical” or “extreme.”

But at the risk of being thought revolutionary, it is necessary that we should seek, not the individual causes of individual cases of extreme want, but the reason why “a large and increasing proportion of the population,” of average temperance, avenge health, average industry, and average morality, “in our great manufacturing centres, whether in England or in other countries,” live, as Prof. Huxley says they do live, though “there reigns supreme . . . that condition which the French call 'la misère', . . . a condition in which the food, warmth, and clothing for the maintenance of the functions of the body in their normal state cannot be obtained.”

Conscious, however dimly, of these facts, we are repeating the experience of a past generation, which, finding that even by so perfect a system as that which we have reviewed, involuntary poverty could not be eradicated, took refuge in the doctrine that it was part of the necessary course of nature. Malthus then appeared to teach them that population increases faster than the means of support, and that there must therefore always be a large pauper class.

The doctrine of Malthus having passed away, we now take refuge in trying to believe that most pauperism is the result of drink, laziness, or vice on the part of the poor.

The statistics gathered by our present charities have shown to those who have studied them that this theory also is false.<ref>See Prof. Amos G. Warner’s “American Charities.”</ref>

The failure of charity is inevitable, however, mainly because, sad as it may seem, no quantity of organized charity, old or new, however great, and no quality, however good, can accomplish social regeneration. It is not the proper remedy, and, like an efficacious medicine applied on a wrong diagnosis, whilst it sometimes seems for a time to allay the distemper and often suppresses its most prominent symptoms, it really only scatters or changes and generally aggravates them.



  • Bolton Hall, “The New Charity,” The Arena 16, no. 84 (November 1896): 970-973.