Fighting Poverty in a Personal Way

  • Prosperity
  • 1843

Methodical work to end poverty, rather than just treating its symptoms, was begun in America when the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor was created by some of New York’s leading philanthropists 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. So they created a “districting” system that divided large areas into manageable precincts where volunteer “visitors” could befriend a few families, provide immediate but strictly temporary relief via grants of food, coal, clothing, etc., and then learn their deeper needs. Regular visitors encouraged and instructed families on the importance of work, caring properly for relatives, saving money, and abstaining from alcohol. The association stressed these personal relationships, admitting the “work is vast, complex, and difficult” but insisting it would make the sprawling, anonymous city more like the friendly countryside.

While bringing middle-class volunteers into daily face-to-face contact with struggling New Yorkers was the group’s central effort, it worked simultaneously on many related fronts. To leaders of all sorts it emphasized that overcrowding and unsanitary conditions killed people and made it hard for families to succeed. The association used donated funds to create public baths, and pressed public-health reforms and the creation of parks—culminating in Central Park—that could serve as the “lungs” of the city. It created a Working Men’s Home for African Americans, and promoted truancy laws and other mechanisms for redirecting troubled youths or placing them in good homes, schools, or reformatories.

By the 1850s, the association was the city’s most influential charity. It inspired similar societies in Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and many other places. The Baltimore Association, for instance, had 2,000 volunteers making 8,227 visits to 4,025 families as of 1891.