Giving that worked

"Giving that worked" Continued...

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

In 1890 woodyards next to homeless shelters were as common as liquor stores are in 2009, and the impact was sobering: Work tests allowed charity managers to see whether applicants who held out signs asking for work were serious. Work tests also allowed applicants to earn their keep and to realize that they could help others: The wood went to widows or others among the helpless poor.

Groups kept records to show their donors that poor individuals were earning most of their meals through labor. The New Orleans Charity Organization Society described its woodyard as a place "where heads of families can earn household supplies, and the homeless food and lodging," with assistance given "in a way that does not pauperize." At the Friendly Inn in Baltimore, the count was 24,901 meals worked for in 1890 and 6,084 given without work.

Other Baltimore groups emphasized self-help for the poor and material transfer only to those unable to work. In 1890, the Thomas Wilson Fuel-Saving Society helped 1,500 families save on the purchase of 3,000 tons of coal. The Memorial Union for the Rescue of Homeless and Friendless Girls offered free rooms in private homes for teenagers and young women until long-term housing and jobs could be found. The Presbyterian Eye, Ear and Throat Charity Hospital offered free beds and Bible readings to the poor and illiterate.

Terms such as "worthy" and "unworthy poor" tend to be used today only with scorn, but organizations during the 1890s were careful to indicate that they were evaluating only willingness to work, not spiritual standing. For example, at Boston's Associated Charities in one typical year, 41 percent of all applicants were considered worthy of relief because of old age, incurable illness, orphan status, accidents, illness, or short-term trouble. Another 33 percent were to be helped to find jobs, and the remaining 26 percent were "unworthy" of support largely because work tests and investigation had indicated that they were without "desire to change."

Annual reports from Associated Charities in the stacks of the Library of Congress show that in a typical year 817 clients found and accepted jobs that year and 278 refused them ("98 refusals with good reason, 170 without"). In addition, the Associated Charities gave loans to 81 persons (the repayment rate was 75 percent), legal aid to 62 persons, and medical help to 304. Volunteers helped 185 families to save money, influenced 53 relatives to offer aid, and pushed 144 alcoholic breadwinners to make progress in temperance. Volunteers worked with 600 children and found adoptive families or guardians for orphans, influenced truants to attend school more often, and placed other children in private day nurseries or industrial schools.

The New Orleans Charity Organization Society also emphasized "personal investigation of every case, not alone to prevent imposture, but to learn the necessities of every case and how to meet them." Some 1,328 investigations in a typical year there led to the classification of 926 individuals as worthy of help, 276 as "unworthy," and 126 as doubtful. In the "worthy" category were 271 individuals found unemployed but willing to work, 252 who had jobs but wanted additional work, 205 who were ill, and 64 who were aged; 48 women had been abandoned by their husbands. Among the "unworthy" were 41 drunkards and professional beggars uninterested in changing their conduct, 143 who were "shiftless" and unwilling to work, and 72 found not to be in need.

Generosity and discernment were to go together like sodium and chloride to produce salt. Baltimore charity manager Mary Richmond wrote that it was hard to teach volunteers "whose kindly but condescending attitude has quite blinded them to the everyday facts of neighborhood life." Volunteers had to learn that "well-meant interference, unaccompanied by personal knowledge of all the circumstances, often does more harm than good and becomes a temptation rather than a help."

Discernment by volunteers, and organizational barriers against fraud, were important not only to prevent waste but to preserve morale among those working hard to remain independent. One charity worker noted, "Nothing is more demoralizing to the struggling poor than successes of the indolent or vicious." St. Louis volunteers were "to give relief only after personal investigation of each case. . . . To give what is least susceptible of abuse. . . . To give assistance at the right moment; not to prolong it beyond duration of the necessity which calls for it. . . . To require of each beneficiary abstinence from intoxicating liquors. . . . To discontinue relieving all who manifest a purpose to depend on alms rather than their own exertions for support."


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