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Poverty and compassion

What we can learn from late 19th-century England


Poverty and compassion

As a Democratic administration comes to power, pressure from the left to expand governmental welfare programs will grow. I hope some of the new U.S. leaders will read a book published 30 years ago, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s brilliant Poverty and Compassion, which looks at how British leaders fought poverty in the late 19th century.

Himmelfarb's 1991 wake-up call to our era concerns the second key word in the book's title, “compassion.” She opposes sentimentalism: “In its sentimental mode, compassion is an exercise in moral indignation, in feeling good rather than doing good …. In its unsentimental mode, compassion seeks above all to do good, and this requires a stern sense of proportion, of reason and self-control.”

British leaders, she writes, were “painfully aware that it was sometimes necessary to feel bad in order to do good.” They needed to “restrain their benevolent impulses in the best interests of those they were trying to serve … to be compassionate in this sense was also to be practical …. It was to utilize means that were consonant with ends, and to define ends in terms that were realistic rather than utopian …. Compassion, properly understood, was at the same time passionate and dispassionate.”

Poverty-fighters could learn only through careful street-level observation whether they were helping rather than hurting. Unlike some of our current foundation and university aristocrats, “They were not lady bountifuls distributing their largesse from the manor house …. [They] conducted their research by going from house to house, street to street, trying to take the measure of urban poverty.”

Poverty-fighters could learn only through careful street-level observation whether they were helping rather than hurting.

Himmelfarb details the work of the leading house-to-house researcher, Charles Booth, who spent 17 years producing his 17-volume Life and Labour of the People in London. Booth was not just a numbers man: For him, “Attitudes and habits, as much as income and occupation, were the facts of life,” because “A man who earns good wages may spend but little of them on his home.”

Himmelfarb describes how Booth recognized that unemployment was the product of a complicated “‘intermixture’ and ‘conjunction’ of the personal and the economic. Personal deficiencies counted for less in good times than in bad and in some industries than in others. Moreover, they were as much the effect as the cause of unemployment, ‘irregular work’ being inevitably coupled with ‘irregular lives.’”

The complications Booth saw shielded him from the abstractions of Marxists who expounded on the entire “working class.” Himmelfarb notes, “Booth, like most of his contemporaries, persisted in thinking and speaking of the working classes in the plural; this was, indeed, the main point of his work. The differentiation of classes implied a differentiation of problems and thus of remedies—specific measures designed to alleviate specific forms of poverty rather than a ‘generic’ condition of propertylessness.”

The successor to Booth was Seebohm Rowntree, whose “great contribution to social discourse was the distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ poverty.” Primary poverty was the poverty of families “whose total earnings are insufficient” to buy essential food and shelter, while ‘secondary poverty’ was that of families “whose total earnings would be sufficient … were it not that some portion of it is absorbed by other expenditure.” But Rowntree also received criticism from Helen Bosanquet of the Charity Organization Society, who saw trouble looming when “classification of human beings becomes for the world at large a question of money income, and the remedy for poverty represents itself as the distribution of money. And for most people this means the worst of all forms of distribution of money—distribution by the State.”

Himmelfarb skillfully contrasts the shadow of impersonal distribution (often by the state) with personal contact by knowledgeable observers. She referred to a memorable Charles Dickens character: “There were, no doubt, Mrs. Jellybys among them, women more concerned with the natives of Borrioboola-Gha than with their own children, and men ‘whose charity increases directly as the square of the distance.’ But the kind of ‘telescopic philanthropy’ satirized by Dickens and George Eliot was not typical.”

As Himmelfarb emphasizes, “the philanthropists, social workers, social missionaries, and researchers pursued their activities not on the shores of the Nile or even in the halls of Westminster and Whitehall but in the streets of the East End. And they did so not as paid professionals or functionaries of the state, but as private citizens, men and women who took it upon themselves to serve humanity in their own ways, from the promptings of their own consciences, out of their own resources, devoting their considerable talents, energies, fortunes, and, often, their entire lives to the service of others.”

Other historians have criticized late 19th century charity organization societies as “ideologically reactionary” in their moralistic ethic, but Himmelfarb praises such groups for their determination to provide “charity in the most suitable forms--a grant or loan for the purchase of clothing or coal, tools or merchandise, a sewing machine or mangle, a surgical appliance or stay in a convalescent home … Visitors maintained contact with each family and exerted the kind of personal influence that helped it become and remain self-supporting.”

Himmelfarb is also perceptive in emphasizing families: “The family was the unit of casework and the principal concern of the Charity Organization Society. This too has been criticized as inconsistent with the political economy professed by the COS, which made the individual the primary unit. But the principle of individualism was never intended to belittle or undermine the family; the individual was seen as standing in opposition to the state and possibly the class, but not the family.”

The volunteer-based COS, she notes, “was sensitive to the charges of condescension and intrusion,” and thus emphasized “cultivation of a professional attitude.” That, though, “did not imply the kind of ‘objectivity’ that is now identified with professionalism—an impersonality and neutrality that profess to be above moral judgments. Nor did the warnings against inquisitiveness and intrusiveness mean that the visitor was to refrain from inquiring into the habits and character of the applicant or from exerting any influence upon him; on the contrary, these were precisely the missions of the visitor.”

Himmelfarb is appropriately stern in criticizing historians who say the charity workers “tried to impose upon the poor middle-class values which violated their indigenous working-class values. The implications of this thesis are disquieting. If thrift, prudence, sobriety, industry, cleanliness, and independence were middle class values, is it to be assumed that profligacy, imprudence, drunkenness, idleness, dirtiness, and dependency were indigenous working-class values?”

Yes, she writes, “The COS may well have been guilty of imposing their values upon the poor. But later historians may be doing so as well, attributing to the poor a contempt for ‘bourgeois’ culture more congenial to intellectuals than to workers aspiring to that culture and to the material and social benefits associated with it. Himmelfarb then makes one of her most important observations: “In ‘moralizing’ these poor, the COS explicitly absolved them from the charge that they were poor because of a failure of character. They were poor and in need of assistance in spite of the fact they were generally (although not always) hardworking, sober, and thrifty. In undertaking to assist them, the COS gave them a character reference, as it were, an official seal of approval. The applicant was subjected to a moral test, and certified as having passed it when he received aid.”

She notes, “in some respects this moral test contrasts favorably not only with the workhouse test imposed by the poor law but with the means test that is the basis of relief today. A means test, judging only the need and not the character of the applicant, leaves open the suspicion that the need is a result of a failure of character; a moral test certifies that it is not.”

This silver cloud had a dark lining: “By identifying these poor in this fashion—by making them both deserving and problematic—the COS prepared the way for very different solutions to that problem. If they were deserving of private charity, why not of public relief? And if they were a social problem, should not the state assistance be given as a matter of right rather than compassion, as a legal obligation of the state rather than the voluntary beneficence of individuals?”

Once those different solutions were adopted, Himmelfarb notes that the path was clear for “the opinion prevalent today that charity is ignoble while state aid is honorable, reflected in the common view that it is demeaning for elderly parents to be dependent on their families but not demeaning to have them dependent on the state. Today ‘charity’ has an invidious ring; in Victorian England … charity under the proper conditions was salutary, not only for the receiver and the giver but for society as a whole, for it united rich and poor in a common bond of citizenship.”

England pioneered in building model tenements, like the American housing projects of the 1960s, so Himmelfarb’s reporting of Octavia Hill’s work is important: She “saw these model buildings as part of the problem rather than the solution. A block building, she insisted, even a ‘model’ block, was not a model home for the poor, any more than for anyone else; indeed it was the very negation of a home. Her own plan was in one sense more modest, in another more ambitious. By taking over the management of small houses, renovating them, and letting them out to tenants at low rentals and under strict supervision, she hoped to provide the conditions in which they could lead good, clean, moral, happy lives.”

“By taking over the management of small houses, renovating them, and letting them out to tenants at low rentals and under strict supervision, she hoped to provide the conditions in which they could lead good, clean, moral, happy lives.”

Once again, the emphasis on “the moral element” was strong, and the regular payment of a modern rent was also an important part of promoting “punctuality, regularity, economy, thrift, prudence,” and other character virtues. Octavia Hill saw the obstacles: “Recognizing that the irregularity of work was the main obstacle to the regular payment of rent, Hill encouraged her tenants to save … and during slack seasons she employed as many as she could in making repairs and improvements in the buildings. But she would brook no arrears in the payment of rent because that would be to undermine their independence and self-respect—their status as rent-paying tenants rather than charitable cases.” Octavia Hill thus offered opportunity and waited for character to reveal itself. She did not wallow in what today we call “poverty porn”: She criticized “would-be benefactors who had a ‘depraved hunger for rags, sharp need, and slums,’ and had no desire to help the industrious, thrifty working people …. One lady cheerily told her, ‘I should like to go where there is condensed misery.’ Others, shown a dark and cheerless court, asked to see one that was still darker and viler. Hill refused to pander to such low tastes.”

Significantly, proponents of massive governmental action have criticized Octavia Hill for thinking small. But as Himmelfarb notes, “By the end of her career her houses accommodated three to four thousand people by one account, well over six thousand by another …. [She had] “the state of mind of the patient reformer who does what good she can, hoping that others will do their part, and suspecting that any other remedy might be more productive of evil than good.”

The only disappointing part of Poverty and Compassion is a section that deals directly with explicitly evangelical groups. Himmelfarb’s brief discussion of the Salvation Army, the most successful international anti-poverty group at the turn of the century, misses the way it emphasized work tests and spiritual challenge in order to avoid “indiscriminate” charity.

When Himmelfarb argues that the Salvation Army’s “religion was nondoctrinal and nonritualistic, requiring nothing more than faith in the atoning power of Christ,” she minimizes the import of Christianity’s chief doctrine. Himmelfarb notes the Salvation Army’s “revivalist meetings, gospel singing, band music, processions, and rallies,” but she apparently does not recognize the significance of what salvationists saw as crucial: the grace of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Because Himmelfarb sees the work of the churches in humanistic terms, some of her interpretations are inconsistent. At one point she notes, “Although the churches themselves continued to lose members, especially among the working classes, the rise of Christian socialism may have prevented an even more precipitous decline.” Later, however, she mentions in passing that the most conservative churches “kept up their numbers” and “formed the Nonconformist Anti-Socialist Union, whose express purpose was to ‘exterminate socialism from Church and State.’”

Himmelfarb observes that such churches “did not dilute their religion with political or social concerns,” but she does not seem to understand that the Gospel has clear social dimensions (although not those that the political left reads into it). Although Himmelfarb does not pursue this line of research, philanthropic organizations that consistently stressed character tended to be based on Biblical principles. Other groups and leaders maintained strong stands for a time, but the understanding they developed from personal observation had no firm foundation, and they or their followers eventually succumbed to pressure from the left.

The roots of England’s turn to socialism in the 20th century were found in the Charles Booth’s “Personal Testament of Faith” (1883). Booth, who understood much about poverty but little about God, wrote, “I worship Humanity. By humanity I mean the human race conceived as a great Being—and by worship I mean that I feel for this Being love, gratitude and reverence …. I resolve to do that which I believe to be right, guided by the Great Being of which I am part, and trusting in that Greater Order in which humanity lives and grows and will doubtless one day perish …. [M]ay my knowledge and love of that Great Being whose child and servant I am, help and strengthen me throughout my life. Amen.”

Beatrice Webb, a leader of the Fabian Society that pushed England into socialism in the 20th century, wrote that “devotion to other human beings” could be as effective as devotion to God. But the practical applications would change: Webb wrote of a “new consciousness of sin.” This was not, she hastened to add, “a ‘consciousness of personal sin.’ It was a collective or class consciousness; a growing uneasiness, amounting to conviction, that the industrial organization, which had yielded rent, interest and profits on a stupendous scale, had failed to provide a decent livelihood and tolerable conditions for a majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain.”

Once leaders saw individuals as evolutionary products of the social organism, society became God.

Once leaders saw individuals as evolutionary products of the social organism, society became God: “the purpose of social evolution was to bring about not the fittest individual but the fittest society …. The amalgam of Positivism and Darwinism made for a powerful argument for collectivism …. Their strategy was to achieve these ends not by revolution but by impregnating all the existing forces of society with Collectivist ideals and Collectivist principles.”

Fabians, like their American equivalents, “saw themselves as the effective actors in history, not strutting on the stage but working behind the scenes, writing the lines, directing the production, manipulating the players, and giving shape and meaning to the historical drama …. They were all in favor of government for the people but not necessarily of or by the people.”

Soon, in England as in America, bureaucracy took over: “control was to be vested not in the people, not even in their parliamentary representatives, but in a class of ‘experts.’” The experts looked at statistics, not individuals or their beliefs—and as the 19th century understanding of compassion diminished, “the services and benefits provided by the state were made available to everyone regardless of merit or even need …. It became a moral principle to eschew moral distinctions and judgments.”

This “demoralization” of the problem of poverty made effective response to it unlikely. Himmelfarb notes other absurdities, such as the idea of relative deprivation—one sociologist developed “indicators of poverty” such as “the lack of hot breakfasts, fresh meat fewer than four times a week, infrequent parties and holidays, and the absence of the habit of dining out.”

Her conclusion: “After making the most arduous attempt to objectify the problem of poverty, to divorce poverty from any moral assumptions and conditions, we are now learning how inseparable the moral and material dimensions of that problem are.” Amen.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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