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 ce...