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Fighting Poverty with Virtue

Is America returning to a tradition of moral reform that had been rejected one hundred years ago? Consider the titles of the two major pieces of antipoverty legislation, each of which represents a generation's approach to this perennial social problem. The War on Poverty was ushered in by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, while the recent welfare reform legislation was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The contrast between the laws, Joel Schwartz suggests, “points to the growing recognition that economic opportunity can be seized by the poor only to the extent that they accept personal responsibility.” This shift, however, is not merely a turning away from the policies of the Great Society. It marks a return to the antipoverty strategy of the moral reformers of the nineteenth century who attempted “to make the poor less poor by making them more virtuous.”

Joel Schwartz, a program officer at the National Endowment of Humanities and a former editor of The Public Interest, has put together an academically rigorous but highly readable study that will fascinate not only students of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century history but also those interested in the contemporary challenges of welfare and welfare reform.

In this wonderful—and timely—book, Schwartz identifies a “unified tradition of moral reform” that goes from 1825 to the early years in the last century. The first part of the work focuses on the thought and action of four largely forgotten figures: Joseph Tuckerman (1778–1840), a Unitarian minister to the Boston poor in the 1820s and 1830s; Robert M. Hartley (1796–1881), the founder and guiding spirit of New York's Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor; Charles Loring Brace (1826–1890), who established and headed the New York Children's Aid Society; and Josephine Russell Shaw (1843–1905), a founder and leading theoretician of New York's Charity Organization Society. The tradition represented by these reformers opposed unconditional doles for the poor, instead emphasizing “the need to help the poor by enabling them to help themselves, specifically by inculcating and encouraging the poor to practice the virtues of diligence, sobriety, and thrift.”

This moral reform tradition embraced a balanced approach that considered both moral and material factors in understanding and attacking poverty: The poor were not poor because of abstract social conditions beyond their control, nor could they improve their lot without any assistance. It is this “reasonable middle ground,” Schwartz argues, that reformers today are correctly assuming.

The critique and rejection of this moral tradition is presented in the second part of the book. Schwartz looks at Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago, a settlement house that became a training ground for social workers, and Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist preacher and leading mind of the Social Gospel Movement. These anti-reformers argued that “bourgeois standards are largely inapplicable to the life of the poor, and that it is unfair to demand individual effort by the poor to rectify poverty for which society is collectively responsible.” Their critique of individual moral virtues and the argument for collective responsibility of systemic poverty eventually became a wholesale rejection of personal responsibility in fighting poverty and can be seen as a precursor of the structural poverty argument that so transformed liberal social policy in the 1960s. Schwartz sees many of these themes prominently reflected in the influential books of the time, such as William Ryan's Blaming the Victim and Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward's Regulating the Poor, both of which came out in 1971. Not that it needs the assistance, but Fighting Poverty with Virtue is here strongly backed by (and makes a good companion volume to) Charles Murray's classic study, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980.

The argument of Addams and Rauschenbusch rejected the assumptions of the old moral reformers and launched a new approach to poverty that held sway throughout most of the twentieth century, achieving its height in the ambitious welfare state of the 1960s and 1970s. And it is precisely the failure of the antipoverty strategy of the Great Society that has led to the search for a new policy and the turn back toward moral reforms reminiscent of the previous era.

Fighting Poverty with Virtue is especially compelling when, in part three, it also considers America's leading black reformers—Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. Their encouraging of hard work and personal responsibility, at a time of vicious discrimination, displays a determination and strength that stand out by any standard, then or now. The difference between their approach, more like that of the old moral reformers, and that of today's affirmative action and race-conscious public policy is especially striking.

Schwartz concludes by discussing contemporary prospects for moral reform, including a variety of reforms that place the poor in an even better position, compared with the late-nineteenth century, to improve their conditions. Nevertheless, he is rightly cautious because of an overwhelming difference between social problems then and now: family decomposition. The solution to this problem is not to be found in the corpus of the moral reformers. “We would do well to try to emulate the antipoverty approach of the moral reformers in many respects,” Schwartz concludes, “but in doing so we must realize that family decline—for which they provide no solution, and for which we have no solution—may greatly hamper the success of our efforts.”

In looking back at the nineteenth-century reformers, we may not discover the easy solution to the breakup of the traditional family, the existence of which the early reformers could take for granted, but we do learn the root of the problem—and the way back toward societal health. The rejection of the “new” poverty reform in favor of the older model also implies an equal rejection of the “new” relativistic theory of values that has clouded the public mind for several decades. The recovery of the older tradition of moral reform, likewise, also implies the recovery of an older morality that is not confused by the value-free quest for tolerance but is centered on the time-tested concept of the moral virtues. Fighting Poverty with Virtue is a welcome signpost along this long road to renewal.