Fighting Poverty in a Personal Way

  • Prosperity
  • 1843

When the Panic of 1837 caused widespread economic dislocation, charitable organizations in America’s growing cities experienced sharply increased demand for their services. Many Christian philanthropists became concerned that the mushrooming charities sometimes did not distinguish between the “worthy poor” and the merely idle. In response, a group of New York donors decided to emulate the personalized anti-poverty program of Glasgow clergyman Thomas Chalmers.

Their organization, called the Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor, launched in 1843. The group disdained “gratuitous charity” that lumped the poor together without considering their individual needs, strengths, and weaknesses. They believed that person-to-person spiritual and moral aid would be, in the long run, more important than material assistance in turning around the fortunes of many households.

The donors first divided their city into manageable districts, to enable the one-on-one relationships between assisters and assisted that keep charity humane, differentiated, and efficient. They put an emphasis on willingness to work, and were willing to withdraw assistance if it seemed to be enervating the recipient. They relied heavily on the judgments and due diligence of volunteers, church members, and donor merchants. Recipients of aid were counseled, helped to plan ways of rebuilding their lives and their relationships, and urged to end destructive habits.

The society also worked to improve the physical surroundings in which the poor lived. It got landlords to repair plumbing, sanitation, and heating. It created inexpensive public baths for women and children.

Robert Hartley, the AICP’s secretary for more than 30 years, described the causes of poverty as “chiefly moral,” and thus “whatever subsidiary appliances may be used—they admit only moral remedies.” The AICP’s approach was influential across our young republic. AICP-inspired organizations popped up in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and other major cities. The Baltimore Association, for instance, had 2,000 volunteers making 8,227 visits to 4,025 families as of 1891. “It worked,” concluded scholar Marvin Olasky after studying the organization. “The crucial understanding was simple but profound: people got by when other people took a personal interest in them.”

  • Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion (Regnery, 1992)