Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America's Urban Poor, 1825-2000.

Author:Nichol, Gene R., Jr.
 
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FIGHTING POVERTY WITH VIRTUE: MORAL REFORM AND AMERICA'S URBAN POOR, 1825-2000. By Joel Schwartz. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 2000. Pp. 353. Cloth, $39.95.

MOTHER JONES: THE MOST DANGEROUS WOMAN IN AMERICA. By Elliott J. Gorn. New York: Hill & Wang. 2001. Pp. 408. Cloth, $27.

In one sense, Joel Schwartz's (1) new effort, Fighting Poverty with Virtue, is tremendously timely. Bill Clinton's Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 was designed to "end welfare as we know it," turning greater attention to poor people's habits than to their pocketbooks. (2) George Bush's compassionate conservatism is meant to pick up the pace, overtly seeking "to save and change lives." (3) The White House's ominously entitled "Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives" is apparently set to unleash new waves of moral reformers. (4)

Schwartz's book seeks to provide moral, philosophical and historical sustenance for these initiatives. He focuses on four "largely forgotten figures" (p. xvi): Joseph Tuckerman, a Unitarian minister who served the poor in Boston in the 1820s and 1830s; Robert Hartley, founder of New York's Association for the Improvement of the Poor; Charles Loring Brace, a Methodist minister who directed the New York City Children's Aid Society in the mid-nineteenth century; and Josephine Shaw Lowell, a civil war widow who helped found New York's Charity Organization Society in 1882. Examining their individual careers, Schwartz documents their collective belief that "the poor [can] best help themselves by practicing humble virtues like diligence, sobriety and thrift" (p. xv). We can make the poor "less poor," they claimed, "by making them more virtuous" (p. xv). Poverty policy is moral, not economic. Changing behavior is more vital, and more beneficial, than transferring cash.

If this sounds newly familiar, it should. After "a long historical detour," Schwartz writes, happily "we are returning to an anti-poverty approach reminiscent of [these] moral reformers" (p. xix).

No one, it seems, could be more out of step, less concordant with the dominant trends of contemporary American poverty policy, than Mary Jones, the colorful, courageous labor organizer whom U.S. Attorney Reese Blizzard once labeled "the most dangerous woman in America" (pp. 96-97). Elliott Gorn's (5) first-rate biography of "Mother Jones," the "mother of the commonwealers" (p. 63), effectively chronicles the life of a rabble-rouser unlike any on the political landscape today--even at the fringes. Amidst violence, massacres, boisterous organizing tours, surprisingly powerful electoral campaigns, and countless strikes, successful and unsuccessful, Mother Jones fought for decades to lift the fortunes of the economically powerless.

For Jones, the "lived experience of class" gave "insight into the suffering of working families"--a suffering that boldly contradicted the vacuous homilies of American equality (p. 303). Accordingly, she sought to turn our much-applauded civic religion to radical social change (p. 184). Reaching across barriers of race, gender, ethnicity and citizenship, Jones worked to offer the excluded hope for redemption (p. 270)--making real the promises of the American democracy.

She had no use for charity, only justice (p. 99). She did not seek to improve the poor, but to empower them. She had few doubts about the causes of poverty. "I know what Lincoln would say to that crew on Wall Street," she spat: "The nation first, and you last." (6) Introducing a group of mill children to a university audience at Princeton, she cried, "[h]ere's a textbook on economics ... [they] get[] three dollars a week" (p. 133). Rough and tumble to the end, she dreamed that working people would organize to create a just society. For Jones, rank, systematic, unyielding poverty was not a "teachable moment." It was, instead, a rejection of the undergirding premises of democratic government. Citizens are sensible, therefore, to struggle to defeat it, to govern themselves, to secure their dignity. Equality is not a gift, but a demand of justice. And Mary Jones was willing to demand it.

With the advent of a new century, a new economy, a new politics, a new global insecurity, and a "new paternalism," we are apparently much closer as a society to Schwartz's "moral reformers" than to Gorn's Mary Jones. I'm not sure that's something to celebrate.

  1. REFORMING THE POOR

    For nineteenth century reformers like Tuckerman, Hartley, Brace, and Lowell, assisting the poor was a moral rather than a fiscal endeavor. Despite their individual differences, they shared a belief that society could best help the impoverished by enabling them to help themselves through the inculcation of virtue. All four openly sought to manage the behavior of the poor. They consistently opposed "the dole" and other welfare plans that would only work "to pauperize" recipients (p. xvi). Instead, they sought, through personal contact--typically by wealthier volunteers offering guidance and counseling--to teach diligence, sobriety, and thrift to those trapped at the lowest rungs of American society. By learning to practice certain character traits, even the poorest among us would become self-reliant. Since destitution and misery resulted from "moral causes," they would "admit only to moral remedies" (p. xvii). People who practiced virtue, generally speaking, would escape poverty. No mere economic program would manage that.

    Of course, the hard edge of such poverty policies eventually fell from favor. Critics like Jane Addams and Walter Rauschenbusch derided the focus on "industrial" virtues and emphasized structural causes of poverty (pp. 109-30). The ravages of the Great Depression made it difficult to argue that a third of Americans merely lacked requisite character. And modern poverty analysts like William Ryan and Frances Fox Piven convinced us, at least by the 1970s, that blaming the victims of poverty for its pervasiveness was neither accurate nor effective. (7)

    Still, Schwartz finds the "moral reformers" enlightening. At the least, they remind us that largesse alone can hardly end the specter of poverty. We practiced moral reform for generations, even if success was less than complete. Then, with the advent of the Depression and the 1960s, we stopped asking the poor to help, and to correct, themselves. Now, thankfully, Schwartz finds, we're returning to higher ground. And we return to it at a time in which the prospects for success are powerfully improved (pp. 211-37). The reformers may have been wrong to think that focusing on people's habits alone could cure poverty. But modern welfare policies have also demonstrated convincingly that unconditioned dollars lead to dependency. So the welfare reformers are on the right track. Both logic and history, in short, are on their side.

    Schwartz's task, though, is a curious one. It would be simple enough to argue that poor Americans who work hard, avoid wasting their resources on drugs and alcohol, and save every spare penny will fare better economically than those who don't. Our welfare programs, therefore, should be molded to encourage these behaviors. But Fighting Poverty is not a naked claim for best practices. It seeks, instead, the stronger pedigree of history. Our poverty policies were different, and perhaps more admirable, in the past. By embracing moral reform now, we turn warmly to our truer heritage.

    But Schwartz's book is not only history. It ventures back and forth from nineteenth century practice to occasionally inserted philosophical meanderings (8) to twenty-first century policy disputes (pp. 9, 49, 74). This may lend freedom to form. But it also gives the historical investigations a strongly diminished credibility. Like "lawyer's history," it can seem designed merely to sustain previously determined positions. Schwartz's goal, therefore, appears to be something different than constructing a history of poverty policy. Steeping ourselves in the lives of Tuckerman, Hartley, Brace, and Lowell may convince us, he thinks, of the power and desirability of modern welfare reform measures designed to force more constructive habits on recipients. That may be Schwartz's purpose. He does not, however, present a very appealing case.

    First there are the obvious reasons. The nineteenth century moral reformers were not notably successful, and they eventually grew quite pessimistic about their own prospects for changing people's behavior. Character reform, one of them wrote, is "devoutly to be wished, seldom achieved" (pp. 74, 76). Lowell eventually moaned that "it produces but small results," while Brace claimed it is "like pouring water through a sieve" (pp. 85, 87). Nor are the reformers' efforts helpful in dealing with the modern era's largest welfare "character" issue--the...

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