Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/October 1899/Reform of Public Charity




ABUSE of municipal charity in New York city has reached a stage where immediate and radical reform is necessary in order to prevent the application of public funds to the payment of subsidies to societies and institutions where professional pauperism is indirectly encouraged and sustained. More than fifty years ago the city began to pay money to private institutions for the support of public charges. The system has grown without check until to-day New York contributes more than three times as much public money to private or semiprivate charities as all the other large cities in the United States combined. The amounts so appropriated in 1898 by some of the chief cities were: Chicago, $2,796; Philadelphia, $151,020; St. Louis, $22,579; Boston, nothing; Baltimore, $227,350; Cincinnati, nothing; New Orleans, $30,110; Pittsburg, nothing; Washington, $194,500; Detroit, $8,081; Milwaukee, nothing; New York city, $3,131,580.51.

No serious attempt has heretofore been made to reform this system of using public funds for the subsidizing of private charities. One reason for this has doubtless been the fact that until recently the local authorities were powerless to avoid or modify the effects of mandatory legislation which has disposed of city moneys without regard to the opinions entertained by the representatives of the local taxpayers. It has always been easier to pass a bill at Albany than to persuade the Board of Estimate and Apportionment of the propriety of bestowing public funds on private charities, and the managers of private charities seeking public assistance have therefore generally proceeded along the line of least resistance. The effect of this system was to make beneficiaries the judges of their own deserts, for the bills presented by them to the Legislature were usually passed without amendment or modification, and gross inequalities in disbursing public funds have arisen, different institutions receiving different rates of payment for the same class of work.

In 1890 the city paid for the support of prisoners and paupers in city institutions the sum of $1,949,100, and for paupers in private institutions the sum of $1,845,872. In 1898 these figures had increased to $2,334,456 for prisoners and public paupers, and $3,131,580 for paupers in private institutions. Private charity, so called, has prospered at the expense of the city until in some cases it has become a matter of business for profit rather than relief of the needy. The returns made by institutions receiving appropriations in bulk from the city treasury show that many of them are using the public funds for purposes not authorized by the Constitution. The Constitution authorizes payments to be made for "care, support, and maintenance." The reports of a large number of institutions show the money annually obtained from the city carried forward wholly or in part as a surplus. Different uses are made of this surplus, none of them, however, authorized by law or warranted by a proper regard for the interests of the taxpayers. In some cases this surplus is used to pay off mortgage indebtedness, in others for permanent additions to buildings, or for increase of investments and endowment. In one case the manager of an institution frankly explained a remarkable falling off in disbursements (so great that its charitable activities were almost suspended) by stating that it was proposed, by exercising great economy for a number of years, to let the city's annual appropriations accumulate into a respectable building fund. The flagrant nature of this abuse is so apparent that comment is unnecessary.

Appropriations for dependent children have reached enormous proportions. Out of a total of $3,249,623.81 appropriated for private charities in 1899, no less than $2,216,773, or sixty-nine per cent, is for the care and support of children. In no city in the United States will the number of children supported at the public expense compare, in proportion to the population, with the number so cared for in the city of New York. This may be partly accounted for by the extremes of poverty to be met with in the metropolis, especially among the foreign-born population, where the struggle for existence is so severe as to weaken the family ties; partly by the rivalry and competition which have existed between the several institutions devoted to this kind of work; partly by reason of the fact that the rate paid by the city for the care of these children is such as to enable the larger institutions, in all probability, to make a small profit; but, to a considerable extent, also from an insufficient inspection by public officers for the purpose of ascertaining whether children are the proper subjects of commitment and detention. In the city of New York 50,638 children in private institutions are cared for at the public expense. This is one to every sixty-eight of the estimated population of the city.

So much for the abuse and extent of public charity. Now for the reforming of the system that was fast approaching the condition of a grave scandal. The last Legislature passed a bill placing in the hands of the local Board of Estimate absolute power over all appropriations for charitable purposes, and for the first time in many years reform is possible. The discretion conferred by this act upon the Board of Estimate and Apportionment carries with it a large responsibility. If hereafter the city, in its relation to private charitable institutions, should either, on the one hand, be wasteful of public funds, or, on the other hand, should fail to perform the duties owed by the community to the dependent classes, the blame can not be shifted to the Legislature, but will rest squarely upon the shoulders of the local authorities.

In treating a condition which has been allowed to exist for many years almost without challenge from the local authorities, and which has grown upon the passive or indifferent attitude of the public, sweeping and immediate reforms can be instituted only at the cost of serious temporary injury to certain charitable work of a necessary character. I believe that the best results will be obtained if the city authorities first decide clearly the relations to be established between the city treasury and private charitable institutions, and then move toward that end by gradually conforming the appropriations in the budget to that idea, in such a manner that progress shall be made as rapidly as may be consistent with the desire to avoid crippling excellent charities which have been led to depend for many years upon public assistance. By this, of course, I do not mean to suggest that we should approach the subject with excessive timidity, for the evils that exist have assumed such proportions that a more or less severe use of the pruning knife must be made in dealing with appropriations, else the effect will be scarcely perceptible. I am convinced that ultimately the cause of charity will benefit rather than suffer from this course, for it is a serious objection to the whole subsidy system that it tends to dry up the sources of private benevolence.

In making up the budget for 1900 I shall urge my associates in the Board of Estimate to agree with me to limit the appropriations for charity to actual relief work accomplished. The giving of public money in lump sums to private societies and institutions for miscellaneous charitable work, of which there is no public or official inspection, should be discontinued at once. It has been the practice for some years past, both in Brooklyn and New York, to donate annually lump sums of money to such organizations. In New York these amounts have been for the most part comparatively small, and principally derived from the Theatrical and Concert-License Fund. In Brooklyn the amounts have been larger, and were obtained originally from the Excise Fund, and later directly from the budget. This practice should be wholly discontinued. The charter itself contains stringent prohibitions against the distribution of outdoor relief by the Department of Public Charities, and the spirit of these provisions would certainly seem to disfavor accomplishing the same result in an indirect manner. Many of these recipients of public funds devote themselves exclusively to outdoor relief, and an examination of the purposes of some of these organizations shows that, however proper these may be as the result of private benevolence, they are extremely improper objects of the public bounty. The immediate and permanent discontinuance of appropriations to all such societies and institutions will correct one of the gravest abuses of the present system. If the persons conducting these miscellaneous charities are really sincere, and believe that they are doing good, they can readily obtain from private sources the funds necessary to carry on the work.

I shall urge that all appropriations to institutions of every kind not controlled by the city be limited to per-capita payment for the support of public charges, and that a system of thorough inspection be at once established to ascertain if present and future inmates are really persons entitled to maintenance at public expense. In addition to this precaution, the comptroller should have full power to withhold payments to any institution after an appropriation has been made if in his judgment, after examination, the money has not been earned. The payment of city money to dispensaries should be discontinued, except in special cases where the work done is clearly a proper charge against the public treasury. No money should be paid for the treatment of dependent persons in any private hospital while there is unoccupied room in the city hospitals.

The city maintains its own hospitals, while at the same time subsidizing private institutions which compete with them. During the last few years great improvements have been made in the city hospitals, but their condition is still capable of considerable further improvement. While sometimes overcrowded, it frequently happens that the city hospitals are not filled to the limits of their capacity, and it would seem as though the city should not deal with private hospitals except as subsidiary aids or adjuncts to the public institutions. It stands to reason that so long as there are vacant beds in the city hospitals and the city is at the same time subsidizing private hospitals at a cost greater than the expense of caring for patients in its own institutions, a wrong is being done to the taxpayers. If private hospitals are to receive public assistance at all, payments should be made only at some uniform rate, approximately the same as the cost per capita of maintenance in the public institutions.

The gravest problem of public charity is the support and training of dependent children, because that has to do with the making of future citizens of the republic as well as the relief of immediate suffering. This work is entirely in the hands of private societies and institutions. The rearing of large numbers of children in either private or public institutions is in itself an evil—a necessary evil—and likely to continue as long as there is extreme poverty, but still an evil, and not to be fostered by subventions of public money in unnecessary cases, when parents are really able to provide for their support.

To build, equip, and maintain public buildings for the care of dependent children seems to me entirely impracticable. Regardless of the matter of expense, which would be enormous, all the disadvantages of the "institutional system" would continue, and it is not likely that public employees could be obtained who would rear children as economically, as efficaciously, or with the same devotion and self-denial as is the case with the religious orders and associations now performing this work—in many respects so successfully. The care of these children by direct governmental agencies being therefore practically impossible, in the city of New York at least, and it being recognized that the present system is likely to continue for many years, if not permanently, the most should be made of it. With the religious training of children the city has nothing to do. Their moral training may also be left safely to those now responsible therefor. On the other hand, the State is vitally concerned with their mental and physical development, and visitation and control for the purpose of maintaining a proper standard in these respects is essential. This form of public charity, like many others, has been abused, and many children are now supported in institutions who probably should not be there. For the rearing of a child into a possible useful man or woman a poor home is better than a good institution, and it is the duty of the city authorities to extend the work of inspection and investigation of such cases until they make it impossible for fraud in the commitment and retention of children to escape detection.

The reduction and regulation of appropriations as outlined can not be classed as a radical reform, and will work no hardship upon any dependent person who is a proper charge upon the city. The saving to the taxpayers, if the plan I have suggested is adopted, will approximate one million dollars in 1900, and a steady reduction of expenditures for charitable work should continue for several years to come.