Steering the U.S. Between Dependence and Neglect

  • Prosperity
  • 1877

In the post-Civil War years, America’s cities and the popularity of Social Darwinism both grew. The increasing anonymity of city life perhaps made it easier for Social Darwinists to assume that all poor persons were doomed, and that charity toward them would thus be useless. Buffalo clergyman Stephen Gurteen rejected this fatalism and founded the Charity Organization Society in Buffalo in 1877. He argued against both the Social Darwinists’ indifference to the poor, and the failures of previous sentimental approaches to aiding the poor—which indiscriminately handed out relief that made givers feel good but undermined the character and independence of the receiver. Gurteen consciously emulated London’s Charity Organization Society, founded by hard-headed social reformer Octavia Hill, and Paris’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Five years later, Josephine Lowell founded another branch of the Charity Organization Society in New York City. She too attacked both callous indifference to the poor, and indiscriminate aid that “fails to save the recipient” because “no man can receive as a gift what he should earn by his own labor without a moral deterioration.” In her work Lowell used volunteers to “supply the precious element of human sympathy and tender personal interest which must often be lacking where the care [is] the means of livelihood of overtaxed officials.”

Both Gurteen and Lowell used work tests with the able-bodied poor, requiring tasks like wood chopping from men and sewing from women as a condition for aid. In addition to sustenance their organizations provided no-interest loans, job banks, and advice in home management. By 1894, historian Marvin Olasky reports, Gurteen’s group “was providing 6,286 days of work to men with families and 11,589 days of work to homeless men,” and the Charity Organization Society system had “caught on across the country.” Denver’s COS, established in 1887, is the precursor to the United Way.