SOMETIMES A MAJOR SHIFT IN SOCIAL POLICY is discernable in a thing as innocuous as the title of a piece of legislation. The War on Poverty was ushered in by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, whereas welfare reform was enacted in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The contrast between the names (not to speak of the substance) of these two laws points to the growing recognition that economic opportunity can be seized by the poor only to the extent that they take personal responsibility for the direction of their lives.
But the focus on personal responsibility marks more than a turn away from the War on Poverty. It also marks a partial return to the antipoverty strategy of a number of philanthropic reformers of the nineteenth century, who attempted — putting it bluntly — to make the poor less poor by making them more virtuous. Two prominent figures in this tradition are Robert M. Hartley (1796-1881), who founded New York’s Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP) in 1843 and was its guiding spirit for over 30 years; and Josephine Shaw Lowell (1843-1905), who was the leading theoretician of New York’s Charity Organization Society, which she helped found in 1881. Both believed that the poor were most effectively aided when armed with the power to help themselves; both contended that the poor could best help themselves by practicing humble virtues like diligence, sobriety, and thrift.
University of Chicago policy analyst Susan Mayer is one of many who argue that we are returning to the views of philanthropists like these, views that were heatedly rejected only a generation ago. Mayer notes that while “for a brief period [beginning in the 1960s] America’s welfare policies were almost exclusively aimed at meeting the material needs of the poor,” the result of 1996’s welfare reform has been to make “welfare policies at the close of the twentieth century resemble those at the beginning of the century,” when Americans “tried to break the cycle of pauperism by improving the moral character of poor families.”
Indeed, only a generation ago (at the onset of the War on Poverty) it was widely believed that the problem of poverty could be solved simply by some combination of expanded economic opportunities and a guaranteed income for the poor. The dysfunctional behavior of the poor was not commonly considered a problem that needed to be addressed at all, or at least not directly: social pathologies were assumed to be a consequence of poverty, not a cause, and could be expected to evaporate with the simple expansion of opportunity or provision of income. While many poverty analysts maintain this view, both lay and expert opinion have shifted toward believing that poverty cannot be meaningfully reduced unless problems of culture, morality, and morale are addressed more directly — as they were by nineteenth-century philanthropists.
It is fair to say that many philanthropists in the past attempted to reduce poverty by teaching virtue to the poor. But we can profit from their example only to the extent that we understand what that enterprise entailed. Practically speaking, what did and can it mean to teach virtue?
First, a few words about what it did not mean. It did not mean (in the formulation of UCLA political scientist James Q. Wilson) “delivering banal homilies.” In fact, past philanthropists preached virtue concretely as well as abstractly. They not only explained that diligence, sobriety, and thrift were good for the poor (and why they were good); they also showed how to exercise these virtues — how to find work, how to stop drinking or drink less, and how to save. These philanthropists were no less eager to convey practical information to the poor than to preach moral virtue to them.
A classic theme of moral philosophy, dating back to Plato, is that knowledge is virtue. In an important sense, that was the view held by Hartley and Lowell. Knowledge — about making oneself presentable to an employer; about the cost, taste, and nutritional value of beverages other than liquor; about the wonders of compound interest — was what facilitated and in fact made possible the exercise of the virtues.
It is worth dwelling on this point, because past philanthropists who fought poverty with virtue are badly misunderstood if they are seen as stern moralists who despised the poor for dooming themselves to impoverishment by flouting obvious moral truths. Instead, far more often the emphasis was on the ignorance of the poor. By and large, the philanthropists held, the poor wanted to do what was right; unfortunately, too often they did not know how.
The philanthropists’ belief that the poor suffered from ignorance more than immorality, however less harsh it may be, can still strike us today as insufferably condescending. But in fact, the attitude must surely have been more or less objectively correct in numerous instances. It would have been astounding if masses of immigrants — many of whom could not speak English — from European peasant societies had arrived in the United States magically equipped with the abilities and attitudes needed to extricate themselves from poverty in urban, industrializing America. In reality, of course, the immigrants did mostly lack the needed abilities and attitudes on arrival, all of which had to be learned instead on our shores.
Thus the reformers spent a great deal of effort offering practical advice to the poor, who were assumed not to know — but to want to know — essential information. For example, Hartley believed that many among the poor were ignorant rather than base: “Many would be prudent and saving, if they knew how to be.” To convey some of the needed information, Hartley’s organization published a twelve-page pamphlet — forbiddingly titled The Economist — and distributed 10,000 copies to the poor annually.
What sort of advice did The Economist offer? The poor were encouraged to buy “such articles as afford the most nourishment for the least money” (for example, corn meal rather than wheat); to “be economical in cooking as well as in buying,” by boiling and stewing in covered vessels, without overheating the water (and thereby wasting fuel); and, of course, to drink milk, coffee, tea, or water — anything but costly liquor (three cents a day spent on liquor “would supply a small family with fuel through the winter”).
Advice like this can, of course, seem rather mundane when contrasted with the great structural causes of mid-nineteenth-century urban poverty that historians today tend to emphasize, such as low wages and cramped, disease-ridden housing. Still, given that it was comparatively easy for New York City’s poor to learn, say, how to salt pork (and comparatively impossible for them to alter the structural conditions that they confronted), one can reasonably suppose that homely advice of this sort actually did much good to thousands of poor families. The advice of the AICP and other philanthropic organizations — coupled with their advice on practicing the bourgeois virtues of diligence, thrift, and sobriety — can plausibly be understood (in the words of welfare historian Dorothy Becker) as “a liberating creed — there were rules of success and the poor could learn them.”
Both in publications written for the poor and in personal contact with them (undertaken by volunteers who came to be known as “friendly visitors”), nineteenth-century philanthropists attempted to teach the poor so as to encourage self-advancing behavior: they understood that a virtue like thrift could be exercised only by those with some knowledge of home economics. To quote Becker again, “Lady Bountiful brought food baskets to the poor; the friendly visitor hoped to bring scientific knowledge about nutritious diet.”
Class and ethnic barriers
It is perhaps an understatement to say that most philanthropic organizations today are reluctant to aid the poor with advice, preferring instead to provide exclusively material assistance. This reluctance often stems from a lamentable reluctance to be “judgmental,” to identify some behaviors as immoral and self-defeating rather than virtuous and self-advancing. Undoubtedly, though, a second factor is the fear that it is somehow wrong or inappropriate to convey advice across class and (particularly) ethnic and racial divides.
History suggests that it would be foolish to dismiss this latter concern out of hand. Many charity workers in the past themselves believed that wealthy or middle-class individuals would likely be unable to give the best advice and to foster its acceptance. Thus, one worker observed that visitors “coming from a higher grade in society” often were confronted by “suspicion and distrust,” because they “ordinarily know absolutely nothing about the people whom they are called upon to visit,” since they have not been “compelled to exercise the small economies, nor undergo the disagreeable things of the life of the working man with all the accompaniments, which are disagreeable.”
The difficulty of conveying advice across class lines was exacerbated by the fact that the poor were often of different nationalities or religions than the visitors. For example, an 1892 conference of the Boston Associated Charities concluded that visits to Italian immigrant families were problematic:
Until the Italians became numerous, we had at least intelligent means of communication with most of the families we knew. We not only spoke the same language, but they knew what we were talking about when we urged the advantages of temperance, industry or economical living. Though their acquiescence in our standards might be feigned and though they might never live up to them, we seldom failed to agree in theory . . . . [But the Italians] are truly foreigners to us. We do not speak a common language; our standards have no meaning to them, and we may well doubt whether they have any applicability.
Religious disagreements complicated efforts at rehabilitation in many instances. Catholic parents were understandably suspicious of efforts to provide moral education to their children in Protestant Sunday schools. Still, it is easy to exaggerate the difficulty of conveying advice across ethnic barriers. And in fact, the Boston charity workers’ statement greatly overstated the gulf between the standards of the upper-class reformers and those of the Italian immigrants, to many of whom “the advantages of temperance [if not abstinence], industry [and] economical living” were quite clear. More dispassionate observers like Thomas Sowell have in fact praised Italian immigrants for their “pattern of hard work” (and concomitant reluctance to accept charity), “frugality,” and “low rates of alcoholism.” Paradoxically, it was the Italians’ sense of self-reliance (the very virtue that the visitors hoped to inculcate) that caused them to keep their distance from charity organizations. Italian immigrants may thus have seemed uninterested in the visitors’ message precisely because they had already imbibed and accepted much of it.
Preaching to the easily converted
This discussion of the similarity in outlook between many Italian immigrants and the mostly Protestant reformers who strove to “improve” them may offer an important clue as to how moral reformation worked in the past — and how it can work and is still working today. I would contend that moral reform enjoys its frequent successes precisely because it is not for the most part an exercise in radically transforming the moral outlook of the amoral.
In other words, yesterday’s philanthropists could teach the virtues because their “pupils” were to a large extent interested in learning them. Their teaching consisted more of answering “how” questions (“How can one be more thrifty?”) than “why” questions (“Why should one try to find work?”). If that hypothesis is valid, then for the most part past philanthropists were not trying to convert the heathen, so to speak — to transform the indolent, intemperate, and improvident into the diligent, sober, and thrifty. Instead, moral reform largely presupposed that the poor generally believed that virtues like diligence, sobriety, and thrift really would assist them in escaping or at least ameliorating poverty. It remained to reformers to explain concretely to the poor how to avoid indolence, drunkenness, and profligacy.
With the amelioration of many of the nineteenth century’s structural causes of poverty, analysts sometimes argue that a sizeable fraction of those in poverty today are there because of their own behavior, and that many are in fact in need of a type of personal “transformation” that is beyond the scope of latter day “visitors.” If the analysts are right, then teaching virtue is nothing more than sentimental antiquarianism, a kind of embarrassing sideshow to the big government project of transfer payments, and a trivial pursuit next to the transforming work of inner-city pastors.
Yet there is good cause to believe that today’s poor are quite receptive to the view that self-advancing behavior can help them escape poverty — so receptive in fact that philanthropic organizations should be far less skittish, far more confident in teaching such behavior. For example, New York University political scientist Lawrence Mead argues that the poor can and should be compelled to obey societal norms — e.g., to work in exchange for welfare payments. But the chief reason for expecting that the poor will agree to find work, Mead contends, is that they “do not question conventional values in principle.” If the poor were for the most part truly recalcitrant, truly opposed to working, then compulsory enforcement of the work norm could not succeed. In Mead’s view, it can succeed only because, in principle, the poor want to do what is right.
Similarly, a 1997 national survey by the research organization Public Agenda shows that the critique of self-advancing behavior as “acting white” is far less common among African-American teenagers than is generally believed. Two-thirds of black teenagers say that their friends look up to classmates who do well in school; 70 percent believe that students should be promoted only when they have learned everything they need to know; 77 percent advocate permanently removing students who bring drugs or guns to school. Black students are also far more likely than whites to believe that subjects like chemistry and calculus are extremely important. Far from opposing efforts to raise educational standards and impose stricter discipline in schools, black teenagers appear strongly to endorse them.
In short, self-advancing behavior by the poor can do much to reduce poverty, since many among the poor are receptive to such a message. Therefore, today as in the past, philanthropic organizations should unapologetically encourage good behavior as an important route out of poverty.
Teaching virtue, difficult as that sometimes is in an age of thoroughgoing moral relativism, remains an important element of an antipoverty strategy that includes material assistance. Indeed, philanthropists in the past were happy to rank teaching ahead of material assistance. Josephine Shaw Lowell put it this way:
To teach someone something — that is a charity [unlike the provision of material relief] in which there is no danger; . . . it is a charity of which there cannot be too much, and the good results of which will never end. No matter who it is, no matter what you teach, whether it be sewing to a little girl, cooking to a big girl, honesty and purity to a youth, neatness and thrift to a woman, industry and self-control to a man, temperance, morality, or religion, you have done a service, and a service which will never end.
The philanthropic community can, should, and will continue to debate whether (and in what circumstances) offering material aid to the poor only confirms dependence or instead offers a route out of it. But there should be no debate about the desirability of encouraging attitudes and behaviors that promote self-reliance. Teaching such attitudes and behaviors was a sound philanthropic strategy 100 years ago. It remains equally sound today.
Joel Schwartz is a research fellow and political scientist at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. This article is adapted from a book-length manuscript entitled Fighting Poverty With Virtue.