Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/October 1899/The Help That Harms

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OCTOBER, 1899.


By the Right Reverend HENRY C. POTTER.

THE analogies between the life of an individual and that other organism which we call civilized society are as interesting as for any other reason because of their inexhaustible and ever-fresh variety. The wants, the blunders, the growth, the perils of the individual are matched at every step by those other wants and dangers and developments which rise in complexity and in variety as the individual and the social organism rise in intelligence, in numbers, and in wealth. It ought to interest us, if it never has, to consider from how much that is mischievous and dangerous we should be delivered if we could revert from the civilized to the savage state; and it is undoubtedly true that serious minds have sometimes been tempted to question whether civilization is quite worth all that it has cost us in its manifold departures from a simple and more primitive condition.

Such a question may, at any rate, not unnaturally arise when we ask ourselves the question. What, on the whole, is the influence upon manhood—by which I mean, here and for my present purpose, the qualities that make courage, self-reliance, self-respect, industry, initiative—in fact, those independent and aggressive characteristics by which great races, like great men, have climbed up out of earlier obscurity and inferiority into power, leadership, and distinction; what is the influence upon these of conditions which tend, apparently by an inevitable law, to beget or to encourage indolence, inertia, parasitic dependence?

One can not but be moved to such a question by either of two papers which have recently appeared in these pages: I mean that entitled Abuse of Public Charity, by Comptroller Bird S. Coler; and that by Prof. Franklin H. Giddings, of Columbia University, on Public Charity and Private Vigilance. The community whose capable and efficient servant he is has reason to be thankful that, in the person of a public official intrusted with such large responsibilities, it has a thoughtful and far-seeing student of problems whose grave importance he has so opportunely pointed out. It needs the courage and the knowledge of such a one to affirm that "it is easier for an industrious and shrewd professional beggar to live in luxury in New York than to exist in any other city in the world," which, if any social reformer or minister of religion or mere critic of the social order had said it, would probably have been denounced as an atrabilious and unwarranted exaggeration.

Concerning the comptroller's indictments of certain charitable societies and organizations as expensive mechanisms for the consumption of appropriations or contributions largely spent upon their salaried officials, I am quite willing to recognize the force of Professor Giddings's demurrer to the effect that a so-called charitable society may now and then rightly exist, and expend its income largely, if not wholly, upon the persons whom it employs as its agents, since these agents are the vigilant committees whose office it is to detect, discourage, and expose unworthy objects, whether of public or private charity. But that, besides such agencies, there are constantly called into being wholly spurious organizations, which profess to exist for the relief of certain classes of sufferers or of needy people; that these succeed, sooner or later, in fastening themselves upon the treasury of the city and of the State; and that they are, in a great many cases, monuments of the most impudent and unscrupulous fraud, there can be no smallest doubt.

Well, it may be asked, What are you going to do about it? Will you accept the inevitable evils that march in the rear of all public or private charity, or will you sweep all the various agencies, which have relieved such manifold varieties of human want and alleviated to such an incalculable degree human misery, out of existence? Will you care to contemplate what a great city like New York or London would be if to-morrow you closed the doors of all the hospitals, creches, homos of the aged, asylums for the crippled, the blind, the insane, and the like, and turned their inmates one and all into the street?

That is certainly a very dramatic alternative to present; but suppose that we look at it a little more closely. And, in order that we may, I shall ask my reader to go back with me, not to that primitive or barbaric era to which I began by referring, but only to a somewhat earlier stage in our own social history, with which many persons now living are abundantly familiar. One of the interesting and startling contrasts which might be presented to one anxious to impress a stranger with our American progress would be to take only our present century, and group together, out of its statistics, the growth and development, in its manifold varieties, during that period in any city, great or small, of institutional charity. But if such a one were just he would have, first of all, to put upon his canvas some delineation of that situation which, under so many varying conditions and amid such widely dissimilar degrees of privilege or of opportunity, preceded it. I listened the other day to the story of a charming woman, of marked culture and refinement, as she depicted, with unconscious grace and art, the life of a gentlewoman of her own age and class—she was young and fair and keenly sympathetic—on a Southern plantation before the civil war. One got such a new impression of those whom, under other skies and in large ignorance of their personal ministries or sacrifices, we had been wont to picture as indolent, exclusive, indifferent to the sorrow and disease and ignorance that, on a great rice or cotton or sugar plantation in the old days, were all about them; and one learned, with a new sense of reverence for all that is best in womanhood, how, in days that are now gone forever, there were under such conditions the most skillful beneficence and the most untiring sympathies.

But, in the times of which I speak, the service on the plantation for the sick slave (which, an ungracious criticism might have suggested, since a slave was ordinarily a valuable piece of property, had something of a sordid element in it) was matched in communities and under conditions where no such suspicion was possible. No one who knows anything of life in our smaller communities at the beginning of the century can be ignorant of what I mean. There was no village or smallest aggregation of families that had not its Abigail, its "Aunt Hannah," its "Uncle Ben," who, when there was sickness or want or sorrow in a neighbor's house, was always on hand to sympathize and to succor. I do not forget that it is said that, even under our greatly changed conditions, in modern cities this is still true of the very poor and of their kindness and mutual help to one another; and I thank God that I have abundant reason, from personal observation, to know that it is. But, happily, neither great cities nor small are largely made up of the very poor, and the considerations that I am aiming to present to those who will follow me through these pages are not concerned with these. What I am now aiming to get before my readers is that there was a time, and that it was not so very long ago, when that vast institutional charity which exists among us to-day, and which I believe to be in so many aspects of it so grave a menace to our highest welfare, did not exist, because it had no need to exist. The ordinary American community, East or West, had, as distinguishing it, however small its numbers and narrow its means, two characteristics which our modern systems of institutional charity are widely conspiring to extinguish and destroy. One of these was that resolute endurance of straitness and poverty of which there is so fine and true a portraiture in Miss Wilkins's remarkable story Jerome. I venture to say that the charm of that rare book, to a great many of the most intelligent and appreciative of its readers, lay in the fact that they could match it, or something like it, in their own experience; that they had known silent and proud women, and brave and proud boys, to whom, whatever the hard pinch of want that they knew, to accept a dole was like accepting a blow, and who covered their poverty alike from the eye of inquisitive stranger or kin with a robe of secrecy that was at once impenetrable and all-concealing. Life to them was a battle, and they could lose it, as heroes have lost it on the tented field, without a murmur; but to sue for bread to some other, even if that other were of the same blood, would have smitten them as with the stain of personal dishonor.

And over against such, in the days and among the communities of which I speak, were those whose gift and ministry it was—without an intrusive curiosity, without a vulgar ostentation, without a word or look that implied that they guessed the sore need to which they reached out—yet somehow to discover it, to succor it, and then to help, finest and rarest of all, to hide it.

Now, then, behind such a condition of things there was a sure and wise discernment, even if it was only instinctive, of a profound moral truth, which was this: that you can not help me, nor I you, without risk. For the most sacred thing in either of us is our manhood or womanhood—that thing which differentiates us from any mere mechanism, that thing in us which says, I can, I ought, I will. Take that out of human nature and what is left is not worth considering, save as one might consider any other clever mechanism. But the power to choose, the power to act, and the consciousness that choice and action are to be dominated by something that answers to the instinct of loyalty to God, to self-respect, to the ideals of honor and righteousness—that is what makes life worth living, and any conceivable thing worth seeking or doing. Now, the moment that the question of our mutual relations enters we have to be concerned with the way in which they will act on this power, quality, characteristic—call it what you will—that makes manhood. It is not enough, for example, that my impulse to give you a pint of gin is a benevolent impulse, if certain tendencies in you make it antecedently probable that a pint of gin will presently convert you from the condition of a rational being into that of a beast. And so of any impulse of mine in the direction of beneficence which, in its gratification, threatens manhood—that is, self-reliance, self-respect, independence, the right and faithful use of powers in me.

And here we come to the problem which lies at the basis of the whole question of charitable relief, for whatever class and in whatever form. The wholesome elements in that earlier situation, to which I have just referred, were threefold, and in our modern situation each one of them is sorely attenuated, if not wholly absent:

1. In the first place, there was a relative uniformity of condition. In other words, at the beginning of the present century in almost all communities, whether industrial or agricultural, the disparities of estate were inconsiderable. There was perhaps the rich man of the village or town, or two or three or half a dozen of them; but they were rich only relatively, and they were marked exceptions. The great majority of the people were of comparatively similar employments and circumstances. Among these there were indeed considerable varieties of task work, but work and wage were not far apart; and, what was of most consequence, a certain large identity of condition brought into it a certain breadth of sympathy and mutual help, out of which came the outstretched hand and the open door for the man who was out of work and was looking for it.

2. Yes, who was looking for it. For here again was a distinguishing note of those earlier days of which I am speaking. Idleness was a distinct discredit, if not dishonor. In communities where everybody had to work, an idler or a loafer was an intolerable impertinence, and was usually made to feel it.

3. And yet, again, there was the vast difference in those days from ours that the industries of the world had not taken on their immensely organized and mechanized characteristics. A mechanic—e.g., out of a job—then could turn his hand to anything that ordinary tools and muscle and intelligence could do. But an ordinary mechanic now must be a skilled mechanician in a highly specialized department, and when he is out of a job there, he is ordinarily out of it all along the line.

I might, as my reader will have anticipated me in recognizing, go on almost indefinitely in this direction; but I have said enough, I trust, to prepare him for the point which I want to make in connection with our modern charities and their mischief. Our modern social order, in a word, has become more complex, more segregated, more specialized. A whole class of people in cities—those, I mean, of considerable wealth—with a few noble exceptions (which, however, in our greater cities, thank God, are becoming daily less rare), live in profound ignorance of the condition of their fellow-citizens. Now and then, by some sharp reverse in the financial world or some national recurrence of "bad times," they are made aware that large numbers of their neighbors are out of work and starving. And, at all times, they are no less reminded that there is a considerable class—how appallingly large it is growing to be in New York Mr. Coler has told us—who need help, or think they do, and who, at any rate, more or less noisily demand it in the street, at the door, by begging letter, or in a dozen other ways that make the rich man understand why the prayer of Agur was, "Give me neither poverty nor riches."[1]

Well, something must be done, they agree. What shall it be? Shall the State do it, or the Church, or the individual? If only they could, as to that, agree! But it has been one of the most pathetic notes of our heedless and superficial treatment of a great problem that, here, there has not been from the beginning even the smallest pretense of a common purpose or any moderately rational course of action. Undoubtedly it is true that there is no imaginable mechanism that could relieve any one of these agencies from responsibility in the matter of relief to the unfortunate, nor is it desirable that there should be. Sometimes it has been the Church that has undertaken the relief of the poor and sick, sometimes it has been largely left to the individual, and sometimes it has been as largely left to the State. But, in any case, the result has been almost as often as otherwise mischievous, or corrupt and corrupting. For, in fact, the ideal mode of dealing with the problems of sickness, destitution, and disablement should be one in which the common endeavor of the State, the Church, and the individual should be somehow unified and co-ordinated. But, incredible as it ought to be, the history of the best endeavors toward such co-ordination has been a history of large inadequacy and of meager results. As an illustration of this it is enough to point to the history of the Charity Organization Society in New York, which, I presume, is not greatly different from that of similar societies elsewhere. Antecedently it would have seemed probable that such a society, which aims simply to discourage fraud, to relieve genuine want, and to protect the community from being preyed upon by the idle and the vicious, would have the sympathy of that great institution, some of whose teachings are, "If any man will not work, neither shall he eat"; "Stand upright on thy feet"; "Provide things honest in the sight of all men"; "Not slothful in business"; and the like. But, as a matter of fact, such societies have had no more bitter antagonists than the churches, and no more vehement opponents than ministers of religion. In a meeting composed of such persons I have heard one of their number denounce with the most impassioned oratory any agency which undertook, by any mechanism, to intrude into the question of the circumstances, resources, or worthiness of those who were the objects of ecclesiastical almsgiving. Who, he demanded, could know so well as the clergy all the facts needed to enable them wisely and judiciously to assist those worthy and needy brethren who were of their own household of faith? Nothing could sound more plausible or probable; but in a little while it happened that a woman who had for years been a beneficiary of this very pastor died, leaving behind her, among her effects, sundry savings-bank books which showed her to be possessed of some thousands of dollars, which she bequeathed to relatives in a distant land. Still more recently a case of a similar character has occurred in which a still larger amount having been paid over in small sums through a long series of years by a church, the whole, with interest, has been found to have been hoarded, the recipient having been a person entirely capable of self-support, and, as a matter of fact, during the whole period self-supporting, and the large accumulations are at present the subject of a suit in which the church is endeavoring to recover what it not unnaturally regards as its own misappropriated money.

And yet, as any one knows who knows anything of the delicacy, vigilancy, and thoroughness with which a well-organized society conducts its work, any such grotesque and deplorable result would, with a little wise co-operation between the Church and such a society, have been rendered impossible. I know how impatient many good people are of the services of any such association, and we have all heard ad nauseam of their protests against a "spy system which invades the sacred privacy of decent poverty," and the rest; but, in fact, such persons never seem to realize that, in one aspect of it, the Church stands, or, as a matter of common honesty, as the administrator of trust funds, ought to stand, on the same equitable basis, at least, as a life-insurance company. Now, when I seek the benefits of a life-insurance company I am asked certain questions which affect not only my physical resources but my diseases, my ancestry and their diseases, my personal habits, infirmities, and the like. If the company has the right, in the just interests of its other clients, to ask these questions, as administering a large trust, has not the Church, which is also the administrator of a trust no less in the interest of other clients?

But, indeed, this is the lowest aspect of such a question, and I freely admit it. The title of this paper points to that gravest aspect of it, with which I am now concerned. The largest mischief of indiscriminate almsgiving is not its wanton waste—it is its inevitable and invariable degradation of its objects. I have spoken of the grave antagonism of the Church to wisely organized charity, but it is but the echo of the hostility of the individual, and often of the best and wisest men and women. Elsewhere (but not, I think, in print) I have related an incident in this connection of which one is almost tempted to say ex uno disce omnes. Approaching one day, when I was a pastor in a great city, the door of one of my clerical brethren, I observed a woman leaving it who, though she hastily turned her back upon me, I recognized as a member of my own congregation. On entering my friend's study I said to him:

"I beg your pardon, but was not that Mrs. —— whom I saw leaving your door a moment ago?"


"What was she after, may I ask?"

My friend—now, alas! no longer living—was a man distinguished by singular delicacy and chivalry of character and bearing, and he turned upon me with some surprise and hauteur and said:

"Well, yes, you may ask; but I do not know that, in the matter of the sad and painful circumstances of one of my own parishioners, I am called upon to answer."

"Precisely," I replied; "but, as it happens, she isn't your parishioner."

"What do you mean, sir?" he exclaimed, wdth some heat.

"Do you suppose that I don't know the members of my own flock?"

"On the contrary," I said, "I have no doubt that you know not only them but the members of a great many other flocks, as in the instance of the person who has just left your door, who, as it happens, has been a member of the church of which I am rector for some fifteen years."

The remark and the abundant evidence with which I was able to re-enforce it at last persuaded my friend to institute further inquiries, which resulted in the discovery that the subject of those inquiries maintained similar relations with some seven parishes, from every one of which she was receiving, as a poor widow, a monthly allowance! And yet my reverend brother was one of the most strenuous opponents of any system or society, any challenge or interrogation which, as he said, came between him and his poor. Alas! though in one sense they were his poor, in another they were as remote from him as if they and he had been living in different hemispheres. With every sympathy for their distresses, he had not come to recognize that, under those complex conditions of our modern life, to which I have already referred, a real knowledge of the classes upon whom need and misfortune and the temptations to vice and idleness press most heavily has become almost a science, in which training, experience, most surely a large faith, but no less surely a large wisdom, are indispensable.

In this work there is undoubtedly a place for institutional charity, and also for that other which is individual. The former affords a sphere for a wise economy, for prompt and immediate treatment or relief, and for the utilization of that higher scientific knowledge and those better scientific methods which the home, and especially the tenement house, can not command. But over against these advantages we are bound always to recognize those inevitable dangers which they bring with them. The existence of an institution, whether hospital, almshouse, or orphanage, to the care of which one may easily dismiss a sick member of the household, or to which one may turn for gratuitous care and treatment, must inevitably act as strong temptations to those who are willing to evade personal obligations that honestly belong to them. In connection with an institution for the treatment of the eye and ear, with which I happen to be officially connected, it was found, not long ago, that the number of patients who sought it for gratuitous treatment was considerably increased by persons who came to the hospital in their own carriages, which they prudently left around the corner, and whose circumstances abundantly justified the belief that they were quite able to pay for the treatment, which, nevertheless, their self-respect did not prevent them from accepting as a dole. Such incidents are symptomatic of a tendency which must inevitably degrade those who yield to it, and which is at once vicious and deteriorating. How widespread it is must be evident to any one who has had the smallest knowledge of the unblushing readiness with which institutional beneficence is utilized in every direction. A young married man in the West, I have been told, wrote to his kindred in the East: "We have had here a glorious revival of religion. Mary and I have been hopefully converted. Father has got very old and helpless, and so we have sent him to the county house." One finds himself speculating with some curiosity what religion it was to which this filial scion was converted. Certainly it could not have been that which is commonly called Christian!

And at the other end of the social scale the situation is often little better. In our greater cities homes have been provided for the aged, and especially for that most deserving class of gentlewomen who, having been reared in affluence, come to old age, after having struggled to maintain themselves by teaching, needlework, and the like, with broken powers and empty purses. But it has, I am informed, been often impossible to find places for them in institutions especially created for their care, because its lady managers have filled their places with their own worn-out servants, who, having spent their years and strength in their employer's service, are turned over in their old age, with a shrewd frugality which one can not but admire, to be maintained at the cost of other people. It is impossible to confront such instances, and they might be multiplied indefinitely, without recognizing how enormous are the possibilities of mischief even in connection with the most useful institutional charity.

And yet these are not so great as those which no less surely follow, as it is oftenest administered, in the train of individual beneficence. In an unwritten address, not long ago, I mentioned an illustration of this which I have been asked to repeat here. While a rector in a large city parish, I was called upon by a stranger who asked for money, and who, as evidence of his claims upon my consideration, produced a letter from my father, written some twenty-five years before, when he was Bishop of Pennsylvania. The writer had, when this letter was placed in my hands, been dead for some twenty years, but, in a community in which he had been greatly loved and respected, his words had not, even in that lapse of time, lost their power. The letter was a general letter, addressed to no one, and therein lay its mischief. When read, it had in each instance been returned to its bearer, and he soon discovered that he had in it a talisman that would open almost any pocket. He was originally a mechanic who had been temporarily disabled by a fit of sickness; when I saw him, however, he was obviously, and doubtless for years had been, in robust health. But he had discovered that if he were willing to beg he need not work, and he had long before made his choice on the side of ease and indolence. After reading the letter which he produced, and looking at its date and soiled condition, both revealing the long service that it had performed, I said to him, "No, I will not give you anything, but I will pay you ten dollars if you will let me have that letter." It would not be easy to describe the leer of cunning and contempt with which he promptly took it out of my hand, folded it, placed it in his pocketbook, and left the room. He was not so innocent as to surrender his whole capital in trade!

Now, here was a man to whom a well-meaning but inconsiderate act of kindness had been the cause of permanent degradation. The highest qualities in such a one—manhood, self-respect, frugal and industrious independence—had been practically destroyed, and an act of charity had made of one who was doubtless originally an honest and hard-working young man, a mendicant, a loafer, and a fraud.

And yet for a sincere and self-sacrificing purpose to help our less fortunate fellow-men there were never so many inspiring and encouraging opportunities. Along with the undeniably increasing complexity of our modern life there have arisen those attractive instrumentalities for a genuine beneficence which find their most impressive illustrations in the improvements of the homes of the poor in college settlements, in young men's and young girls' clubs in connection with our mission churches, in the kindergartens and in the cooking schools founded by these and other beneficent agencies, in juvenile societies for teaching handicrafts and encouraging savings, and, best of all, in that resolute purpose to know how the other half live, of which the noble service of Edward Denison in England; of college graduates in England and in America, who have made the college and university settlements their post-graduate courses; of such women here and in Chicago as Miss Jane Addams, and the charming group of gentlewomen living in the House in Henry Street, New York, maintained with such modest munificence by Mr. Jacob Schiff; of such laborious and discerning scrutiny and sympathy as have been shown in the studies and writings of my friend Mr. Jacob Riis—are such noble and enkindling examples.

These and such as these are indicating to us the lines along which our best work for the relief of ignorance and suffering and want may to-day be done, and the more closely they are studied, and the more intimately the classes with which they are concerned are known, the more abundantly they will vindicate themselves. For these latter have in them, far more commonly than we are wont to recognize, those higher instincts of self-respect and of manly and womanly independence that, in serving our fellow-men, we must mainly count upon. There are doubtless instinctive idlers and mendicants among the poor, as, let us not forget, there are chronic idlers, borrowers, "sponges," among the classes at the other end of the social scale. But the same divine image is in our brother man everywhere, and the better, more truly, more closely we know him, the more profoundly we shall realize it. During some six weeks spent, a few years ago, in the most crowded ward in the world, among thousands of people who lived in the narrowest quarter and upon the most scanty wage, I gave six hours every day to receiving anybody and everybody who came to me. During that time I had visits from dilapidated gentlemen from Albany and Jersey City and Philadelphia and the like, who supposed that I was a credulous fool whose money and himself would be soon parted, and who gave me what they considered many excellent reasons for presenting them with five dollars apiece. But, during that whole period, not one of the many thousands who lived in the crowded tenements all around me, and to hundreds of whom I preached three times a week, asked me for a penny. Not one! They came to me by day and by night, men and women, boys and girls, for counsel, courage, sympathy, admonition, reproof, guidance, and such light as I could give them—but never, one of them, for money. They are my friends to-day, and they know that I am theirs; and, little as that last may mean to the weakest and the worst of them, I believe that, in the case of any man or woman who tries to understand and hearten his fellow, it counts for a thousandfold more than doles, or bread, or institutional relief.

  1. Proverbs xxx, 8.