Back to the Future

Back to the Future

Fighting Poverty With Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor 1825-2000
by Joel Schwartz
Indiana University Press, 2000, 480 pp., $39.95


Conservatives for some time now have been urging a return to virtue and morality as a key to resolving social ills. The latest voice in this chorus, which includes Gertrude Himmelfarb, Marvin Olasky, Lawrence Mead, Mickey Kaus, and Charles Murray, is Joel Schwartz, who brings us Fighting Poverty with Virtue.

Schwartz recommends that we look to the charity reformers of the nineteenth century for responses to contemporary urban poverty. As Josephine Shaw Lowell or Charles Loring Brace did then, we might now try to reduce poverty by “remoralizing” the unemployed to the “three cardinal virtues” of “diligence, sobriety and thrift.” That is, we should teach the poor to work harder, drink less, and save more. This is a very old argument. In the thirteenth century, for instance, Humbert of Romans cited the “habitual idleness, debauchery and drunkenness” of the poor as their chief failing.

Charity reformers of the nineteenth century believed that cash aid to poor people was dangerous, even cruel: it fostered dependency, reduced incentives to work (and thereby caused poverty), and offered false hope for a better future. Relief should be given sparely, if at all, and administered only by private agencies to reduce political patronage and indiscriminate giving to the “unworthy” poor. Victorian reformers sought, they said, to reduce the cost of relief, too: private charity could offer better support (providing moral uplift in lieu of cash) and do it more cheaply and efficiently than public agencies. Besides, they argued, public relief inhibits the private spirit of giving. Finally, and most important, they wanted to ensure that poor relief remained charity, not a right, and that cash would be offered only as a last resort. “Almsgiving and dole giving are hurtful,” wrote Lowell, a founder of the New York Charity Organization Society (COS) and one of Schwartz’s central characters, “therefore they are not charitable.” The COS motto was “not alms, but a friend.”

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