Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/August 1899/Public Charity and Private Vigilance




AUGUST, 1899.




THE Comptroller of the City of New York deserves the thanks of all good citizens for his serious indictment of the abuses of public charity that have grown up in this city and State within the past ten years. Probably very few of the more intelligent men and women of the community were aware that three million dollars, raised by taxation, are annually appropriated to the assistance of private charitable institutions, over which the public has no real control and only the most shadowy authority through the inspection of the State Board of Charities. Of those who were informed of this fact, very few indeed were acquainted with the specific abuses which the comptroller's article exposes. To a few individuals, however, who have devoted time and money unselfishly to the defense of public interests and to the exposure of the evils of irresponsible relief, these facts have long been familiar. Such can not fail to take satisfaction in the clear presentation of the case by Mr. Coler. Especially to the men and women who have been connected with the work of the State Charities Aid Association and the Charity Organization Society will Mr. Coler's article be welcome, as a strong re-enforcement of arguments which they for years have been presenting to the people of New York, oftentimes, it has seemed, to but unwilling hearers.

It is therefore in no spirit of fundamental disagreement, but rather in the desire to further "the reform which the comptroller demands, that I venture to criticise in two particulars the statement as he has left it. It is an incomplete view of the enormously difficult problem of charity which fails to set forth some of the reasons that have led to the growth of an excessive faith in the excellence of private institutions and in the wisdom of a co-operation between them and the public, which is taken for granted when they receive appropriations of public money.

Great as have been the abuses associated with private charity, they are small when compared with the abuses that have existed in the public administration of poor relief. As all familiar with the history of this subject know, the old English poor law was so administered in the rural parishes that paupers were in a more eligible position than industrious farm laborers; that women with bastard children were publicly rewarded for unchastity; and that, now and again, rent-paying farmers were willing to surrender their lands to the paupers to work them for what could be made, rather than to go on paying rates. The exposure of the evils of the system, which was made in the report of the famous Poor Law Commission appointed in 1832, and the attempt to abolish them by the provisions of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, ought to be studied by every citizen who desires to perform his full duty as a guardian of public interests, and especially by every individual whose sympathies lead him to undertake any practical effort for the amelioration of pauperism. In the United States, on account of the extremely decentralized character of our poor-relief system generally, we have no such impressive body of critical literature as that which was brought out in England during the first half of the present century. None the less, whenever special investigations of the management of town and city relief administration and of the management of almshouses have been made, deplorable abuses have almost invariably been exposed, and individuals acquainted with the facts have argued that any possible misdirection of either private or public funds through private agencies could not equal the corruption and the inhumanity for which officialism has been responsible.

Let us look at one noteworthy example. In 1891 a special committee appointed to report on outdoor alms in the town of Hartford, Connecticut, discovered a state of affairs with which nothing revealed in Mr. Color's statements can for a moment be compared. The general situation, the committee said, was found to be as follows:

"In 1885 Hartford was paying $2.07 for each man, woman, and child of its population in poor relief. New Haven was paying $1.30; Bridgeport, $1.03; Waterbury, 81 cents; Norwich, $1.54; New Britain, $1.39, etc.; for twelve Connecticut cities an average of $1.22 per capita against our $2.07; and with Hartford far ahead of her nearest competitor. For outdoor relief the figures were similar. Hartford, 90 cents per capita; New Haven, 51 cents; Norwalk, 23 cents, etc.—an average for the twelve of 61 cents per capita, with only one higher, Hartford in the lead again by fifty per cent. Five Massachusetts cities, including Boston, Worcester, and Lowell, average $1.16 for all relief, against our $2.07; and 24 cents for outdoor relief against our 90 cents. Five other New England cities, including Providence and Bangor, average 33 cents for all relief, against our $2.07; and 12 cents for outdoor, against our 90 cents. Four New York cities—New York, Brooklyn, Buffalo, and Albany—average 63 cents, against our $2.07; and 43 cents, against our 90 cents. Five cities in Pennsylvania and Maryland, including Philadelphia, Pittsburg, and Baltimore, average 38 cents against our $2.07; and 4 cents, against our 90 cents. Seven Western and Southern cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Charleston, average 62 cents for all relief, against our $2.07; and 17 cents, against our 90 cents."

A similar comparison extended by the committee to the principal cities of Europe, including Berlin, Dresden, and Stuttgart, showed that here again Hartford led them all. In short, it appeared to be proved that Hartford was spending on the poor more money per capita of population than any other city in the United States, and more than any other in the world, with certain exceptions in Italy, and the noteworthy exceptions of London, $3.75 per capita, and Paris, $3.66 per capita. Hartford, however, outranked even London in its percentage of pauper population, which was 6.2 in Hartford, against 2.46 in London. While in Hartford every sixteenth person was a recipient of municipal bounty, in London the proportion was only one in forty. Paris led all, with one in eight.

Investigation of the causes of this deplorable state of affairs revealed an astonishing understanding between the paupers and the officials. Tramps were given residence and support for the sake of their votes on election day. Grocery stores were practically subsidized. Families whose individual members could be made useful politically were supported in outdoor relief.

That the showing was so much better for New York and other great American cities was not a proof of greater honesty or wisdom of administration on the part of municipal officials. The difference was almost wholly due to the enormous extension of private as over against public charity outside of typical New England Commonwealths like Connecticut, where the town method of dealing with such matters still holds its own against other forms of philanthropic enterprise. Proof on this point would be overwhelming were we to take the necessary space to present it. One has only to go through the annual reports of the New York State Board of Charities and read the exposures that have repeatedly been made of the state of affairs on the islands of the East River and in the county almshouses of the State to satisfy himself that were the whole burden of supporting the pauper population of this Commonwealth, and especially of this city, thrown upon the public, private enterprise withdrawing from the competition, the appropriations mentioned by Mr. Coler would sink into ridiculous insignificance by comparison. The appropriation of public money to private institutions has become a scandalous abuse, but we shall never understand its strength until we frankly face the fact that the public has been experimenting with it, hoping thus to find a way of escape from the greater abuses that attend the administration of public relief by public agencies except when they are incessantly watched and held up to the broadest light of publicity by the disinterested efforts of private citizens.

The omission of this side of the matter from Mr. Color's discussion may perhaps be regarded as a mere failure to deal with the whole of a very large and difficult problem. But it is more than a mere omission; it is, I think, a positive error, and a serious one, into which the comptroller falls when he lays as much stress as he does upon the expenditure, for salaries and wages, of a large proportion of the sums appropriated by the city for private institutions. The real question here, as all sound experience has repeatedly demonstrated, is not whether the expenditure is for salaries in general rather than for relief. This Mr. Coler practically admits when he says that a great deal of money spent for relief is worse than wasted, because it fosters pauperism instead of repressing it, and when, at the close of his article, he says that he found it necessary to create in his department a bureau to investigate the character of institutions asking aid. This is a frank confession that the expenditure of money for salaries or for wages may be wiser than its expenditure in relief, provided the salaries or wages are earned in actual investigation, which results in exposing fraud and preventing expenditures on improper applicants. This is the very kernel of the whole matter, whether it is a private or a public administration of charity that we are considering. The use of money, public or private, for the payment of salaries that are mere sinecures is dishonesty pure and simple, and neither the comptroller nor any of those private organizations that make it their business to watch and criticise administration can have a more imperative duty than that of putting an end to such corruption. But, on the other hand, there could be no better index of positive progress in solving the practical problems of charity than a steady increase in the ratio of expenditures in salaries and wages on account of investigation and prevention to the amount spent in actual relief. That, in fact, would be an ideal administration of public and private charities in which the efficiency of investigators and the practical sagacity of relieving agents was so high that nearly the whole sum expended had to be charged to their salary account.

This is precisely the principle which private organizations like the State Charities Aid Association and the Charity Organization Society have labored in season and out of season to make the public and the officials comprehend. Innumerable exposures of the impostures practiced upon a credulous public by the great class of professional mendicants, tramps, and place seekers have furnished all the evidence that sensible men need to satisfy themselves that large sums expended by the public and by private individuals of charitable proclivities have no other result than that of encouraging pauperism and misery. It is largely due to the tireless efforts of the State Charities Aid Association for many years past that the institutions receiving public moneys in this State have been watched with such vigilance that there is now a strict system of accounting in all of them, and that it has become the duty of the State Board of Charities not only to insist upon such accounting and to carry out a thorough inspection, but also to frame and enforce rules for their government.

These criticisms I offer, however, only because, as I said at the outset, I desire to see the fundamental proposition of Mr. Color's statement strengthened and made to bear practical fruit. It is indeed a very serious question whether the appropriation of public money to private institutions has not become so great an evil that it would be better to put a stop to it once for all. And yet I must confess to a doubt whether, upon a complete survey of all the facts, this would be the judgment of the most practical and far-seeing men. The granting of appropriations gives to the city and the State a reason and an excuse for a strict inspection of organizations that otherwise might do incalculable mischief by preying upon the credulity of a generous public while concealing their actual operations. I therefore am inclined to think that the path of practical wisdom lies through an attempt to perfect the existing co-operation between public and private agencies, and to bring it to a sounder business basis by developing inspection, publicity, and accountability. If private organizations are encouraged to do all in their own power under a system wherein the State grants them aid under strict conditions, lays down necessary rules for their government and guidance, and remorselessly exposes all their transactions, the actual result may be better in the long run than if State and private associations proceeded independently of one another, often duplicating each other's work, or, if not that, working at cross-purposes.