Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/July 1893/Private Relief of the Poor



LESS objectionable than administration of poor relief by a law—established and coercive organization, is its administration by privately established and voluntary organizations—benevolent societies, mendicity societies, etc. "Less objectionable" I say, but still, objectionable: in some ways even more objectionable. For though the vitiating influences of coercion are now avoided the vitiating influences of proxy-distribution remain. If we have not a machinery so rigid as that set up by the Poor Law, yet we have a machinery. The beneficiary is not brought in direct relation with the benefactor, but in relation with an agent appointed by a number of benefactors. The transaction, instead of being one which advantageously cultivates the moral nature on both sides, excludes culture of the moral nature as much as is practicable, and introduces a number of bad motives. Note the ill workings of the system.

As with the Poor Law (especially the old Poor Law), those who were distressed but thrifty and well conducted got no help, while help came to the improvident and ill-conducted; so with philanthropic societies in general. The worthy suffer rather than ask assistance; while the worthless press for assistance and get it. The Mansion House Fund of 1885-'86, for instance, was proved to have gone largely for the support of "idlers, spendthrifts, and drunkards." "They did not see why they should not have some of the money going as well as their neighbors." In some cases applicants "demanded their share." Where, as in another case, cmployment was offered, less than one fifth proved to be good for anything; showing that the unemployed, so generally pitied as ill-used by society, are unemployed because they either can not or will not work; and showing, by implication, that charitable agencies enable them to evade the harsh but salutary discipline of Nature.

The encouragement of hypocrisy, which goes along with this neglect of the good poor who do not complain and attention to the bad poor who do, becomes conspicuous when religious professions are found instrumental to obtainment of alms. Clergy and pious women, easily deluded by sanctimonious talk, favor those who are most skilled in utterance of spiritual experiences, and in benedictions after receiving gifts. Hence a penalty on sincerity and a premium on lying; with resulting demoralization.

This evil is intensified by sectarian competition. There are competing missions which collect and distribute money to push their respective creeds, and bribe by farthing breakfasts and penny dinners. Nearly half the revenue of one mission is distributed in credit tickets, and "if the recipient wishes to cash his ticket, he can not do so until after the evening service": this vicious system being carried even to the extent that the visitors try "to force its tickets on the most respectable and independent people"—pauperizing them to make hypocritical converts of them. Said one woman, poor but clean and tidy, who saw how the emissaries of the Church favored the good-for-nothings: "I didn't want any of the good lady's tickets. . . but it's very 'urtful to the feelings to see that careless drinking people living like 'ogs gets all, and them as struggles and strives may go without." And not only does there result a discouragement of virtue and an encouragement of vice, but there results a subsidizing of superstitions. Unless all the conflicting beliefs thus aided are right, which is impossible, there must be a propagation of untruth as well as a rewarding of insincerity.

Another evil is that easy-going people are exploité by cunning fellows who want to make places for themselves and get salaries. A crying need is found; prospectuses are widely distributed; canvassers press those on whom they call; and all because A, B, C, etc., who have failed in their careers, have discovered that they can get money by playing the parts of manager, secretary, and collector. Then, if the institution vehemently urged is established, it is worked in their interest. But it is not always established. As there are bubble mercantile companies, so there are bubble philanthropic societies—societies kept up for a time merely for the purpose of getting subscriptions. Nay, on good authority I learn that there are gangs of men who make it their business to float bogus charities solely to serve their private ends.

Not even now have we reached the end of the evils. There is the insincerity of those who furnish the funds distributed: flunkyism and the desire to display being often larger motives than beneficent feeling. These swindling promoters when writing to wealthy men for contributions, take care to request the honor of their names as vice-presidents. Even where the institutions are genuine, the giving of handsome subscriptions or donations, is largely prompted by the wish to figure before the world as generous, and as filling posts of distinction and authority. A still meaner motive co-operates. One of the nouveaux riches, or even one whose business is tolerably prosperous, takes an active part in getting up, or in carrying on, one of these societies supposed to be originated purely by benevolence, because he likes the prospect of sitting on a committee presided over by a peer, and perhaps side by side with the son of one. He and his wife and his daughters enjoy the thought of seeing his name annually thus associated in the list of officers; and they contemplate this result more than the benefits to be given.

There are kindred vitiations of other organizations having beneficent aims—orphanages, provisions for unfortunate and aged tradesmen, etc. Here again, the least necessitous, who have many friends, are usually those to benefit, and the most necessitous, who have no friends, are neglected. Then there is the costliness and corruption of the selecting process—expensive and laborious canvassing, exchange of votes, philanthropic log-rolling. Evidently the outlay for working the system, in money and effort, is such as would be equivalent to a maintenance for many more beneficiaries, were it not thus wasted in machinery.

JSTor is it otherwise with institutions thought by most people to be indisputably beneficial—hospitals and dispensaries. The first significant fact is that thirty per cent of the people of London are frequenters of them; and the largeness of this proportion makes it clear that most of them, not to be ranked as indigent, are able to pay their doctors. Gratis medical relief tends to pauperize in more definite ways. The out-patients begin by getting physic and presently get food; and the system "leads them afterward openly to solicit pecuniary aid." This vitiating effect is proved by the fact that during the forty years from 1830 to 1869, the increase in the number of hospital patients has been five times greater than the increase of population; and as there has not been more disease, the implication is obvious. Moreover, the promise of advice for nothing attracts the mean-spirited to the extent that "the poor are now being gradually ousted out of the consulting-room by well-to-do persons." People of several hundreds a year, I even up to a thousand, apply as out-patients, going in disguise: twenty per cent of the out-patients in one large hospital having "given false addresses" for the purpose of concealing their identity. Swarming as patients thus do, it results that each gets but little attention: a minute being the average for each, sometimes diminished to forty-five seconds. Thus those for whom the gratis advice is intended get but little. Often "the assistance given is merely nominal"; and "is both a deception on the public and a fraud upon the poor." These gratuitous medical benefits, such as they are, "are conferred chiefly by the members of the unpaid professional staffs" of these charities. Some of them prescribe at the rate of three hundred and eighteen patients in three hours and twenty minutes—a process sufficiently exhausting for men already hard-worked in their private practice, and sufficiently disheartening to men with little private practice, who thus give without payment aid which otherwise they would get payment for, very much needed by them. So that the six hundred thousand pounds a year of the metropolitan hospitals, which, if the annual value of the lands and buildings occupied were added would reach very nearly a million, has largely the effect of demoralizing the patients, taking medical care from those it was intended for and giving it to those for whom it was not, and obliging many impecunious doctors and surgeons to work hard for nothing.[2]

These various experiences, then, furnished by societies and institutions supported by voluntary gifts and subscriptions, unite to show that whatever benefits flow from them are accompanied by grave evils—evils sometimes greater than the benefits. They force on us the truth that, be it compulsory or non-compulsory, social machinery wastes power, and works other effects than those intended. In proportion as beneficence operates indirectly instead of directly, it fails in its end.

Alike in the foregoing sections and in the foregoing parts of this work, there has been implied the conclusion that the beneficence which takes the form of giving material aid to those in distress, has the best effects when individually exercised. If, like mercy, it "blesses him that gives and him that takes," it can do this in full measure only when the benefactor and beneficiary stand in direct relation. It is true, however, that individual beneficence often falls far short of the requirements, often runs into excesses, and is often wrongly directed. Let us look at its imperfections and corruptions.

The most familiar of these is the careless squandering of pence to beggars, and the consequent fostering of idleness and vice. Sometimes because their sympathies are so quick that they can not tolerate the sight of real or apparent misery; sometimes because they quiet their consciences and think they compound for misdeeds by occasional largesse; sometimes because they are moved by that other-worldliness which hopes to obtain large gifts hereafter by small gifts here; sometimes because, though conscious of mischief likely to be done, they have not the patience needed to make inquiries, and are tempted to end the matter with a sixpence or something less; men help the bad to become worse. Doubtless the evil is great, and weighs much against the individual exercise of beneficence—practically if not theoretically.

The same causes initiate and maintain the begging-letter impostures. Occasional exposures of these in daily papers might serve as warnings; but always there is a new crop of credulous people who believe what they are told by cunning dissemblers, and yield rather than take the trouble of verification; thinking, many of them, that they are virtuous in thus doing the thing which seems kind, instead of being, as they are, vicious in taking no care to prevent evil. That the doings of such keep alive numbers of scamps and swindlers, every one knows; and doubtless a considerable set-off to the advantages of individual beneficence hence arises.

Then, again, there meets us the objection that if there is no compulsory raising of funds to relieve distress, and everything is left to the promptings of sympathy, people who have little or no sympathy, forming a large part of the community, will contribute nothing; and will leave undue burdens to be borne by the more sympathetic. Either the requirements will be inadequately met or the kind-hearted will have to make excessive sacrifices. Much force though there is in this objection, it is not so forcible as at first appears. In this case, as in many cases, wrong inferences are drawn respecting the effects of a new cause, because it is supposed that while one thing is changed all other things remain the same. It is forgotten that in the absence of a coercive law there often exists a coercive public opinion. There is no legal penalty on a lie, if not uttered after taking an oath; and yet the social disgrace which follows a convicted liar has a strong effect in maintaining a general truthfulness. There is no prescribed punishment for breaking social observances; and yet these are by many conformed to more carefully than are moral precepts or legal enactments. Most people dread far more the social frown which follows the doing of something conventionally wrong, than they do the qualms of conscience which follow the doing of something intrinsically wrong.[3] Hence it may reasonably be concluded that if private voluntary relief of the poor replaced public compulsory relief, the diffused sentiment which enforces the one would go a long way toward maintaining the other. The general feeling would become such that few, even of the unsympathetic, would dare to face the scorn which would result did they shirk all share of the common responsibility; and while there would probably be thus insured something like due contributions from the indifferent or the callous, there would, in some of them, be initiated, by the formal practice of beneficence, a feeling which in course of time would render the beneficence genuine and pleasurable.

A further difficulty presents itself. "I am too much occupied," says the man of business when exhorted to exercise private beneficence. "I have a family to bring up; and my whole time is absorbed in discharging my responsibilities, parental and other. It is impossible for me, therefore, to make such inquiries as are needful to avoid giving misdirected assistance. I must make my contribution and leave others to distribute." That there is force in the reply can not be denied. But when we call to mind the common remark that if you want anything done you must apply to the busy man rather than to the man of leisure, we may reasonably question whether the busy man may not occasionally find time enough to investigate cases of distress which are forced on his attention. Sometimes there may even result, from a due amount of altruistic action, a mental gain conducive to efficiency in the conduct of affairs.

At any rate it must be admitted that individual ministration to the poor is the normal form of ministration; and that, made more thoughtful and careful, as it would be if the entire responsibility of caring for the poor devolved upon it, it would go a long way toward meeting the needs: especially as the needs would be greatly diminished when there had been excluded the artificially generated poverty with which we are surrounded.

But now, from this general advocacy of individual giving versus giving by public and quasi-public agencies, I pass to the special advocacy of the natural form of individual giving—a form which exists and which simply needs development.

Within the intricate plexus of social relations surrounding each citizen, there is a special plexus more familiar to him than any other, and which has established greater claims on him than any other. Every one who can afford to give assistance, is brought by his daily activities into immediate contact with a cluster of those who by illness, by loss of work, by a death, or by other calamity, are severally liable to fall into a state calling for aid; and there should be recognized a claim possessed by each member of this particular cluster.

In early societies, organized on the system of status, there went, along with the dependence of inferiors, a certain kind of responsibility for their welfare. The simple or compound family group, formed of relatives standing in degrees of subordination, and usually possessing slaves, was a group so regulated that while the inferiors were obliged to do what they were told, and receive what was given to them, they usually had a sufficiency given to them. They were much in the position of domestic animals in respect of their subjection, and they were in a kindred position in respect of due ministration to their needs. Alike in the primitive patriarchal system and in the developed feudal system, we see that the system of status presented the general trait, that while dependents were in large measure denied their liberty, they were in large measure supplied with the means of living. Either they were directly fed and housed, or they were allowed such fixed proportion of produce as enabled them to feed and house themselves. Possession of them unavoidably brought with it care for them.

Along with gradual substitution of the system of contract for the system of status, this relation has been changed in such manner that while the benefits of independence have been gained the benefits of dependence have been lost. The poorer citizen has no longer any one to control him; but he has no longer any one to provide for him. So much service for so much money, has become the universal principle of co-operation; and the money having been paid for the service rendered, no further claim is recognized. The requirements of justice having been fulfilled, it is supposed that all requirements have been fulfilled. The ancient régime of protection and fealty has ceased, while the modern régime of beneficence and gratitude has but partially replaced it.

May we not infer, with tolerable certainty, that there has to be re-instituted something akin to the old order in a new form? May we not expect that without re-establishment of the ancient power of superiors over inferiors, there may be resumed something like the ancient care for them? May we not hope that without the formation of any legal ties between individuals of the regulating class, and those groups whose work they severally regulate in one or other way, there may come to be formed stronger moral ties? Already such moral ties are in some measure recognized. Already all householders moderately endowed with sympathy, feel bound to care for their servants during illness; already they help those living out of the house who in less direct ways labor for them; already from time to time small traders, porters, errand-boys, and the like, benefit by their kind offices on occasions of misfortune. The sole requisite seems to be that the usage which thus shows itself here and there irregularly, should be called into general activity by the gradual disappearance of artificial agencies for distributing aid. As before implied, the sympathetic feelings which have originated and support these artificial agencies, would, in their absence, vitalize and develop the natural agencies. And if with each citizen there remained the amount now taken from him in rates and subscriptions, he would be enabled to meet these private demands: if not by as large a disbursement, yet by a disbursement probably as large as is desirable.

Besides re-establishing these closer relationships between superior and inferior, which during our transition from ancient slavery to modern freedom have lapsed; and besides bringing beneficence back to its normal form of direct relation between benefactor and beneficiary; this personal administration of relief would be guided by immediate knowledge of the recipients, and the relief would be adjusted in kind and amount to their needs and their deserts. When, instead of the responsibility indirectly discharged through poor-law officers and mendicity societies, the responsibility fell directly on each of those having some spare means, each would see the necessity for inquiry and criticism and supervision: so increasing the aid given to the worthy and restricting that given to the unworthy.

And hero we are brought face to face with the greatest of the difficulties attendant on all methods of mitigating distress. May we not by frequent aid to the worthy render them unworthy; and are we not almost certain by helping those who are already unworthy to make them more unworthy still? How shall we so regulate our pecuniary beneficence as to avoid assisting the incapables and the degraded to multiply?

I have in so many places commented on the impolicy, and indeed the cruelty, of bequeathing to posterity an increasing population of criminals and incapables, that I need not here insist that true beneficence will be so restrained as to avoid fostering the inferior at the expense of the superior—or, at any rate, so restrained as to minimize the mischief which fostering the inferior entails.

Under present circumstances the difficulty seems almost insurmountable. By the law-established and privately established agencies, coercive and voluntary, which save the bad from the extreme results of their badness, there have been produced unmanageable multitudes of them, and to prevent further multiplication appears next to impossible. The yearly accumulating appliances for keeping alive those who will not do enough work to keep themselves alive, continually increase the evil. Each new effort to mitigate the penalties on improvidence, has the inevitable effect of adding to the number of the improvident. Whether assistance is given through State-machinery, or by charitable societies, or privately, it is difficult to see how it can be restricted in such manner as to prevent the inferior from begetting more of the inferior.

If left to operate in all its sternness, the principle of the survival of the fittest, which, as ethically considered, we have seen to imply that each individual shall be left to experience the effects of his own nature and consequent conduct, would quickly clear away the degraded. But it is impracticable with our present sentiments to let it operate in all its sternness. No serious evil would result from relaxing its operation, if the degraded were to leave no progeny. A short-sighted beneficence might be allowed to save them from suffering, were a long-sighted beneficence assured that there would be born no more such. But how can it be thus assured? If, either by public action or by private action, aid were given to the feeble, the unhealthy, the deformed, the stupid, on condition that they did not marry, the result would manifestly be a great increase of illegitimacy; which, implying a still more unfavorable nurture of children, would result in still worse men and women. If instead of a "submerged tenth" there existed only a submerged fiftieth, it might be possible to deal with it effectually by private industrial institutions, or some kindred appliances. But the mass of effete humanity to be dealt with is so large as to make one despair; the problem seems insoluble.

Certainly, if solvable, it is to be solved only through suffering. Having, by unwise institutions, brought into existence large numbers who are unadapted to the requirements of social life, and are consequently sources of misery to themselves and others, we can not repress and gradually diminish this body of relatively worthless people without inflicting much pain. Evil has been done and the penalty must be paid. Cure can come only through affliction. The artificial assuaging of distress by State-appliances, is a kind of social opium-eating, yielding temporary mitigation at the eventual cost of intenser misery Increase of the anodyne dose inevitably leads by and by to increase of the evil; and the only rational course is that of bearing the misery which must be entailed for a time by desistance. The transition from State-beneficence to a healthy condition of self-help and private beneficence, must be like the transition from an opium-eating life to a normal life—painful but remedial.

  1. From the author's Principles of Ethics, vol. ii, just published by D. Appleton & Co.
  2. The evidence here summarized will be found in Medical Charity: Its Abuses, and how to remedy them, by John Chapman, M. D. Some of the sums and numbers given should be greatly increased; for since 1874, when the work was published, much hospital extension has taken place.
  3. A most instructive and remarkable fact, which illustrates this general truth at the same time that it illustrates a more special truth, is that respecting the rudest of the Musheras of India, who have no form of marriage, but among whom "unchastity, or a change of lovers on either side, when once mutual appropriation has been made, is a thing of rare occurrence"; and, when it does occur, causes excommunication. So that among these simple people, public opinion in respect of the marital relation is more potent than law is among ourselves. (For account of the Musheras see Calcutta Review, April, 1888.)