Giving that worked

"Giving that worked" Continued...

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

The New Orleans Charity Organization Society tried to impress on its volunteers maxims of discernment by printing on the back cover of its annual reports statements such as, "Intelligent giving and intelligent withholding are alike true charity," and "If drink has made a man poor, money will feed not him, but his drunkenness." One official emphasized that "the question which we try through investigation to answer [is,] Are these applicants of ours ready to work out with us . . . some plan which will result in their rescue from dependency? If such elements are entirely lacking-no basis of good character, no probability of final success-then we do not assume the responsibility of asking societies or churches or private persons to help."

Discernment was also important among individuals approached by beggars-and teaching that proved to be a very difficult task! Charities Review once asked the designer of an innovative program whether its success satisfied "the 'gusher' who desires to give every evening beggar 25 cents." S.O. Preston responded, "No, nothing satisfies the 'gusher'; he will persist in giving his (or someone else's) money to the plausible beggar as often as he appears." The magazine was filled with criticism of "that miscalled charity which soothes its conscience with indiscriminate giving."

Our late-19th-century predecessors saw as unethical what many today see as humane. Charity leader Humphreys Gurteen called giving money to alcoholics "positively immoral" and argued that if givers could "foresee all the misery which their so called charity is entailing in the future," they would "forgo the flutter of satisfaction which always follows a well intentioned deed." New Haven minister H.L. Wayland criticized the "well-meaning, tender-hearted, sweet-voiced criminals who insist upon indulging in indiscriminate charity."

Similarly, Charities Review criticized "that miscalled charity which soothes its conscience with indiscriminate giving," and proposed that individuals and groups restrict "material relief to those cases in which such relief would be given by the true friend." True friendship was not encouraging "lazy imposture . . . such mercy is not mercy: it is pure selfishness." Instead, true friendship meant helping to deliver a person from slavery to a bottle, a needle, or his own laziness.

Charity leaders frequently checked their own assumptions about the availability of work; they were not so foolish as to insist on employment when none was available. In 1892 charity experts from several major cities, asked whether honest and sober men would spend more than a short time out of work, all said such a situation was "rare" or "very exceptional." Most of the able-bodied poor accepted the work obligation, partly because of biblical teaching and partly because they had little choice. A New Haven mission manager reported that fewer than one out of a hundred refused to work in the woodyard or sewing room, perhaps because "there is no other institution in this city where lodging can be secured except by cash payments for same."

Hang tough, charity leaders demanded, or else problems would worsen: New York charity leader Josephine Lowell wrote that "the problem before those who would be charitable, is not how to deal with a given number of poor; it is how to help those who are poor, without adding to their numbers and constantly increasing the evils they seek to cure."

The typical 19th-century approach-generosity plus discernment-garnered strong support from many Christians but criticism from others. Some called for governmental welfare, but late-19th-century pastors typically opposed governmental welfare because, as Amos G. Warner wrote in American Charities, "It is necessarily more impersonal and mechanical than private charity or individual action. . . . There is some tendency to claim public relief as a right, and for the indolent and incapable to throw themselves flat upon it."

Minister Joseph Crooker noted that "it is very easy to make our well-meant charity a curse to our fellow-men." Social worker Frederic Almy argued that "alms are like drugs, and are as dangerous," for often "they create an appetite which is more harmful than the pain which they relieve." Governmental welfare was "the least desirable form of relief," according to Mary Richmond, because it "comes from what is regarded as a practically inexhaustible source, and people who once receive it are likely to regard it as a right, as a permanent pension, implying no obligation on their part."

Perhaps the most credible observer of the entire era was liberal reformer Jacob Riis, author in 1890 of How the Other Half Lives. Riis, who had been a penniless immigrant himself, lived his concern for the New York poor by hauling heavy cameras up dozens of flights of tenement stairs day after day to provide striking photographs of dull-eyed families in crowded flats. Riis documented great misery, but he also saw movement out of poverty and concluded that "New York is, I firmly believe, the most charitable city in the world. Nowhere is there so eager a readiness to help, when it is known that help is worthily wanted; nowhere are such armies of devoted workers."


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