The North American Review/Volume 168/Issue 507/How Holland Helps the Helpless

This is an age when man has assumed the office of his brother's keeper more vigorously, perhaps, than at any previous period. Sociology — the science of living so as to obtain for all and from all the best results of living — engrosses public attention as much as it did in that theory vortex of the French Revolution, with this difference — the application of theories is insisted upon more strongly than their evolution. It is well, then, to turn our eyes to an object lesson presented by the most practical nation on earth. The difficult problem of assisting the poor without pauperizing them seems to have been successfully met by the Dutch. A model in miniature exists of a community where those who have lost their hold on prosperity are restored to at least a semblance of self-support, family ties are preserved, education is afforded the young, and, in short, the utmost possible is made of the most unpromising material.

The Poor Colonies of Holland, four in number, are not, as might be supposed, a government institution, though at one time co-operation with the government was attempted which resulted quite injuriously to the undertaking. These colonies owe their origin entirely to a Society of Beneficence ("Maatschappy van Veldadigheid"), organized in 1818 to meet the exigencies of destitution entailed on Holland in common with the rest of Europe by the wars of the Napoleonic era. After passing through many vicissitudes and various stages of growth, the charitable enterprise at present consists of property to the amount of a little over 5,000 acres of land in the heart of the country, Steenwyk, the nearest town, being five miles distant.

Every subscriber or group of subscribers paying into the treasury of the Society the sum of $20.40 annually, is entitled to send a family to one of the four colonies, which are named respectively Frederiksoord, Wilhelminasoord, Willemsoord, and, wherefore is unknown, Colony Number Seven. The necessitous individual forced to enter on life as a beneficiary of the Society is provided with a home for himself and his family; also with the immediate necessities of living, and, above all, with work, from the proceeds of which he begins to repay in small weekly installments the advances made to him. Wages such as are current at the time in the neighborhood are paid weekly, and there is deducted from them, as an installment on the debt, house rent, not exceeding twenty cents, one cent infirmary fee for each inmate of the home, four cents for a clothing fund, and a sum amounting to ten per cent. of the gross earnings for a reserve fund against family emergencies. A valuable contribution to each household is the ewe sheep provided by the colony, and also to be paid for by due economy. Its milk, equal to goat's milk in quality, supplies food, and its wool is woven into garments. The family, it will be observed, is always maintained in its entirety, the importance of the family life being, as is known, ever highly esteemed in Holland, while the large infusion of Jewish blood into the Dutch is believed to have also a strong and favorable influence upon the system.

"No idleness" is the watchword of the colony. Children even while apprentices are taught to make salable articles, which are purchased from them, the compensation being proportioned to the excellence of the workmanship, and each child, when not engaged in learning a trade, must attend school. It is a curious fact that, though the free school originated within the borders of Holland, school attendance is compulsory in these colonies only, so dear is the liberty of the individual held.

Two years of successful probation as a workman on the farms of the colony, or in its shops or factories, entitle a man to an individual farm, of 7.7 acres (small enough in our eyes, but in Holland large enough and fertile enough to support a family), and to the franchise of the colony. That of the State is his inalienable right, in common with every other descendant of "the free Frisians," but he thus becomes a voter upon the affairs of his little world — a "vrijboer" in fact. If his occupancy of his farm should begin in mid winter, the new farmer is furnished with fodder for five months, enough rye to sow 2.4 acres, and 33 bushels of potatoes — these being charged to him on account. At other times be inherits some planted crops.

The best advice as to the character of produce to which his land is adapted is constantly at hand, for the government has located one of its agricultural experiment stations within the limits of the Society's domain, and inspectors of the colony visit him to see if the utmost possible is being obtained from the farm. A cow is also supplied him, and the manure, if carefully husbanded, will save him the expenditure of $14 yearly for fertilizers required by the regulations. For rent he pays $20 annually, and $4 upon his indebtedness, For each payment tendered before it is due a remittance of 10 per cent. is made, and every inducement is held out to encourage thrift and stimulate industry.

The farmer is lord of his own land, with the understanding merely that he will use it to the best advantage, and he has a vote in the election of the four delegates to the council of the colony which co-operates with the Director, Secretary and Treasurer in the management of its affairs. His tenure is life-long, except in the case of flagrant misconduct, and widows have frequently retained farms and continued to work them.

The Society endeavors to have all the houses alike and each plot of ground as desirable as every other, After the Holland fashion, the stable, barn and house of the farmer are all under one roof, but they are all subjected to the proverbial Dutch cleanliness. The combined structure shelters the family, the cow and the products of the farm. The dwelling part has two rooms — one being the kitchen and dining-room, and the other the parlor and bedroom. The bedroom feature is concealed, for, according to the local custom, the beds are shelves in a closet, so that when the closet doors are closed during the day no suggestion of a bed appears.

That the colonists are happy and contented is shown by the fact that during 1894, out of 284 heads of families living under the wing of the Society and, in a measure, on its bounty, not one farmer left, and only three laborers failed of their promotion to the dignity of a farm.

The average expense to the Society for each member of the colonies yearly is $9, and in many cases the amount is less. In 1895 there were 1,826 residents in the four colonies, of which 199 families belonged to the farmer class and eighty-five families to what may be called the probationary. Thirty-five births had taken place during the previous year, twenty-four deaths had occurred, and forty-six young men had left for work outside.

And here we come to the most important feature of the colony — the future of the children born or brought into it. Charity has made further provision that the helplessness of the parent shall not handicap youth in its preparation for the battle of life. In addition to the public schools established by the State, technical or professional schools exist, endowed by General Van Swieten as a memorial to a departed son. And a nobler gift never was known, for in these institutions agriculture, horticulture and forestry are taught, there being 943 acres of forest land within the bounds of the colonies, and pupils are paid for work done in the course of their education. Thorough training in forestry, as is well known, is almost security for a position in Europe, and, in addition to profit, many refining influences enter through the cultivation of flowers. And every year there are competitive exhibitions of produce, stock and general farm conditions,. in addition to floral displays, with prizes for the winners. The best results, as a rule, are obtained with colonists coming from rural districts or from the smaller towns, and, it may be added, that proportionately more money comes to the charity from the same sources.

The people who come to avail themselves of the benefactions of the colony have generally led a life of hardship and privation, so that they early reach a helpless old age. To minimize their sufferings an "Old Folks' Rest" has been built, which is supported in part by the Society and in part by the more thrifty and generous of the colonists.

The reader must not assume that this novel Dutch experiment of directing the poor in ways of industry and economy has become as yet self-supporting. Such is not the case. At the close of each year each individual under its protection owes the Society $1.54, besides what has been supplied him on account; or, if this debt also be included, he owes about $ 12. But the condition of the average tenant has been greatly ameliorated. He has been able to command many comforts and some luxuries which are ordinarily beyond the reach of the very poor, and his children have been taught habits of thrift and a degree of self-reliance, self-respect and ambition which, but for the friendly guardianship of the Society, they would never have known. Whether the constant expense which the enterprise entails upon its generous sponsors will be diminished as time passes is uncertain; but all friends of good order and good government may well ask themselves the question whether the destitute of any land can be cared for less expensively. In any case, the prime consideration is its comprehensive humanity and the serious and momentous fact that, instead of multiplying beggars, this charity multiplies citizens, the children of the first tenant almost always acquiring an energetic and provident spirit which renders them independent of all assistance.