It’s now been a decade since Marvin Olasky introduced many of us to the ideas of Victorian poverty-fighters in his influential work The Tragedy of American Compassion. With Helping the Poor: Friendly Visiting, Dole Charities, and Dole Queues, Robert Whelan of the British think tank Civitas covers some of the same ground. This book demonstrates both how one branch of Victorian charity contributed to the development of the modern welfare state—and how another branch can teach us useful lessons about how to fix that same welfare state.
Before the welfare state, there was vigorous competition between charities that aided the London poor. These charities fell into two classes: “Visiting charities” investigated each case before making a decision about what sort of aid to give; “dole charities” imposed no qualifications on their gifts, and these charities evolved into the welfare state.
Helping the Poor divides into two halves. In the first part, Whelan shows the difference between the leading visiting charity, the Charity Organization Society (COS), and the most important dole charity, the Lord Mayor’s Mansion-House Fund. Then Whelan, aided by historian Barendina Smedley, reprints the largest surviving cache of case files that have survived from the period.
The COS was founded in 1869 to coordinate the activities of numerous London charities and acted as a watchdog to make sure that those who received aid would actually use the help. Whelan reprints a speech by one of the COS’s founders, the great poverty-fighter Octavia Hill, who explained in an 1889 address that the organization’s investigators undertook a task that “calls for the best powers of heart, and soul, and body.”
“We must not help too much,” Hill added, or a poor person “becomes dependent; we must not help too little, or he loses hope; we spend in watchful, ever more continuous tenderness year after year, thankful if, after several long seasons, we find him better.”
The surviving casebooks from the COS show Hill’s ideas in action. These files include one casebook for 1879-1880 and 27 full-length files. It’s remarkable that these files exist, since they were supposed to be destroyed 20 years after a case closed. Other case records burned during World War II, and most of the remainder were thrown out when the COS evolved into the Family Welfare Association in 1962.
Since these files are a tiny fraction of the cases the COS handled, it’s unclear how representative they are. But the evidence Whelan and Smedley present show that the COS’s volunteers knew what they were doing.
The COS’s personnel have been caricatured by generations of social workers as prissy, thin-lipped types who delighted in dividing the poor into the “deserving” and “undeserving.” But you had to be fairly disordered to be called “undeserving”; only 12 of 190 applicants for aid to the Fulham and Hammersmith COS in 1879-1880 were deemed unfit for aid. One “undeserving” applicant, for example, was not given aid because he refused to speak to case officers and because “he drinks and wife is immoral.” Another applicant who wanted money for eye surgery was denied for, among other reasons, being in jail when the interviewer called and because two sources reported that the applicant was a drunkard.
The case files show that COS officers were flexible enough to deal with cases individually. For example, take the case of George Little, a 41-year-old ironmonger who showed up at the COS in 1907 saying that he had not worked for nine years because both he and his wife, Selina, were drunks.
“Little speaks like an educated man,” read a note in the file, “He does not whine or complain of his wife or seek to evade his responsibilities toward her. . .. He is very shabby and this is against him in seeking work but he does not wish to ask for clothes except on loan.”
The COS investigators went to work. Queries were sent to three COS chapters, each of which verified Little’s story. COS investigators went to Little’s home and interviewed his sister, Selina Little, and a neighbor who reported that “If Mrs. Little has two half-pints she gets herself locked up, but he can hold gallons and not shew [sic] it.” On the COS’s recommendation, Mrs. Little went to the Salvation Army for six months to dry out, while a country minister gave Mr. Little some work doing odd jobs. The Littles’ daughter was placed with her aunt.
The COS spent over a year trying to help Little get back to work. He did some odd jobs, but preferred drunkenness to work. COS investigators paid several visits to the Littles to try to get them to sober up, but the Littles refused to oblige.
Finally, in February 1910, the COS tried to send a “temperance visitor” to help Mrs. Little sober up, but the visitor was angrily sent away. Mrs. Little was also sentenced to three weeks imprisonment for stealing from her landlady. At this point, and after all these visits, the COS finally gave up.
One can argue that the case shows the limits of traditional charity, since, despite the use of every weapon in the COS’s arsenal, the Littles freely chose to be drunken failures. But as Whelan points out, if the couple had applied for welfare today, they “would have been given sufficient financial assistance to pursue their downward spiral into alcoholism.” Would putting the Littles on welfare—and giving them a steady income to buy alcohol—have made their lives better?
Whelan notes that many of the Fabian socialists objected to social insurance schemes that rewarded the dissolute with government checks. Beatrice Webb, for example, opposed the National Insurance Bill of 1911 (which created social insurance and unemployment insurance in Britain) on the grounds that “any grant from the community to the individual. . .ought to be conditional on better conduct.” But Winston Churchill successfully countered, “I do not feel convinced that we are entitled to refuse benefit to a qualified man who loses his employment through drunkenness. . .. I do not like mixing up moralities and mathematics.”
Nearly a century later, it’s clear that private groups are far better in helping poor people solve their moral and spiritual problems than are government social workers. But if these nonprofits are to do a good job, they need to learn from the successes—and the mistakes—of their Victorian ancestors. In Helping the Poor, Robert Whelan provides additional evidence that the Victorian friendly societies were on the right path and have tricks to teach the poverty fighters of today.
Martin Morse Wooster is a contributing editory of Philanthropy and author of The Foundation Builders.