The Social Museum Collection

Poor Relief

Poor Relief

Efforts toward understanding and mitigating social problems developed in the nineteenth century in response to rapid industrialization and the unprecedented growth of urban centers, as well as the massive influx of immigrants to the United States. Fear perpetuated the belief that the problems of the city—crime, chronic unemployment, overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, alcoholism, etc.—were caused by the moral, physical, and mental deterioration of its impoverished inhabitants, and their inability to take responsibility for their circumstances. However, with the introduction of a more scientific approach, progressive thinkers in America and abroad acknowledged that environment played a role in the escalation of social problems and thus advocated more mechanisms of poor relief, both public and private.

These modern problems complicated almsgiving, which Francis Greenwood Peabody believed had become for the wealthy classes a way to atone for their prosperity and for the poor a temptation to indolence, pauperism, and fraud. As early as 1893 Peabody expressed support for “scientific charity,” a method of regulation instituted by the Charity Organization Society and Associated Charities organizations. This system attempted to provide structure to existing methods of relief by establishing a registry of aid recipients, to prevent fraud and duplicate giving, and by recruiting “friendly visitors,” who monitored and kept statistics on those who received support. This new approach to charity, according to Peabody, was based on two symbiotic elements—science and sentiment. If charity was only about business and economics, then it lacked moral motive. However, indiscriminate giving was ineffective, and thus charity required a system for distribution made effective through the application of scientific methods to relief.