Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 114 (June/July 2001): 48-52.
Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825–2000. By Joel Schwartz. Indiana University Press. 480 pp. $39.95.
Reviewed by Keith Pavlischek
In the introduction to this book Joel Schwartz calls our attention to the titles of two major pieces of antipoverty legislation. The War on Poverty was ushered in by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, whereas welfare reform was more recently enacted in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The contrast between the names, 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 change, says Schwartz, is more than simply a turn away from the War on Poverty; it marks a healthy return to the antipoverty strategy of moral reformers of the nineteenth century. Schwartz’s study of this period focuses on the rhetoric and actions of four largely forgotten figures: Joseph Tuckerman (1778–1840), a Unitarian minister to the poor of Boston in the 1820s and ’30s; 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. Schwartz sums up the views of the moral reformers of the nineteenth century by saying that to them “the poor were most effectively aided when armed with the power to help themselves, and that they could best help themselves by practicing humble virtues like diligence, sobriety, and thrift.”
Stated so simply and starkly, one might imagine that Schwartz would be sympathetic to the libertarian side of the welfare reform debate. If “bad charity” and government–run programs drive out “good charity,” as libertarians argue, the best thing government could do would be to get out of the way and allow faith–based and other charities to do their work. This supposedly is the way charity functioned before government messed things up.
But Schwartz shows that the moral reformers increasingly came to recognize the need for political and structural reform, and gradually came to favor government regulation of the economy. Structural reforms, however, were seen not as a substitute for personal virtue but as a complement and perhaps even a precondition of moral reform, especially when the reformers concluded that the virtues practiced by the poor were not being sufficiently rewarded by the market. Brace, for example, supported social insurance as a supplement to individual savings and thrift, and Lowell advocated collective bargaining and maximum–hour laws to increase the likelihood that diligence would be justly rewarded.
Schwartz observes that the emphasis on moral reform was plausible only as long as the “bourgeois” or “individualistic” virtues were understood as intrinsically admirable and applicable to the poor as well as to the middle class. But while diligent, sober, and thrifty people usually avoided pauperism, toward the end of the nineteenth century it became less clear that moral virtues were sufficient to lift even the most morally virtuous out of poverty. Radical critics came to question whether the moral reformers’ emphasis on individual responsibility had any place at all in helping the poor. Schwartz captures the theoretical alternative confronting turn–of–the–century poverty workers:
Did the economic evolution away from laissez–faire chiefly reflect the recognition that individualistic moral virtues were not omnipotent in and of themselves (and stood in need of governmental action to become more effective)? Or did the push toward collectivism in economics also reflect a belief that the individualism characterizing the virtues promulgated by moral reformers was somehow problematic morally, not just economically? Was the economic rejection of laissez–faire joined to a moral revolution in which virtues like diligence, sobriety, and thrift fell into disrepute?
The pivotal figures—and villains—in Schwartz’s narrative are Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago, a settlement house that became a training ground for social workers, and Walter Rauschenbusch, the founder of the American social gospel movement. Schwartz persuasively demonstrates that despite their considerable common ground with the earlier moral reformers, Addams and Rauschenbusch rejected the earlier reformers’ basic expectation that the poor could and should be expected to take steps to improve their condition. To some degree this was because they both came to doubt, with some justification, the efficacy of promoting individual upward mobility in the industrial era. But the critique was more fundamental than that, and ultimately more pernicious.
Addams came to question the very capacity of the poor to help themselves. They were often, in her view, too “primitive,” “emotional,” and deficient in the “sense of prudence” to take the sort of self–advancing actions that characterized the middle class. Rauschenbusch, for his part, attacked individualistic virtues on theological grounds.
In preaching and encouraging the moral virtues, the early reformers assumed that the poor—like the nonpoor—were motivated by a self–interest that was unproblematic from either a moral or theological standpoint. Like all of us, the poor were self–interested. For the moral reformers, a key to reducing poverty was to teach them to be more effectively self–interested and to teach self–interest “rightly understood.” But Rauschenbusch wanted to supplant individualistic virtues with “new motives” for acting. It was not enough to make the poor better accumulators, he argued, because accumulation itself was suffused with selfishness. The proper aim was not to achieve more effective self–seeking, but to replace self–seeking with altruism.
This view led him to criticize, for example, the virtue of thrift, which supposedly contradicted the spirit of Christianity. While Brace had supported social insurance to supplement individual efforts at personal savings and thrift, Rauschenbusch made the far more radical argument that social insurance should replace individual efforts, which were morally suspect because self–seeking. Similarly, Rauschenbusch rejected the “sanctified common sense” displayed by Tuckerman in his critique of indiscriminate charity in favor of what Schwartz calls “an almost fundamentalist faith in the accuracy and continued relevance of Jesus’ economics.” I think it more accurate to say that Rauschenbusch took the Sermon on the Mount to be a discourse in political economy, which it is not. He thus regarded the more moderate and practical Christian economics of Tuckerman and Brace as a “dulling of Christ’s teaching.” Schwartz concludes that Addams and Rauschenbusch could be more accurately understood as “moral transformers rather than reformers.” They could not venerate virtues that had the tinge of “self–interest” and that stood in the way of the creation of a society dedicated to collective virtue (Addams) or Christian altruism (Rauschenbusch).
Schwartz argues that central components of the ruling paradigm in late–twentieth–century America were pres ent in embryonic form in the writings of Addams and Rauschenbusch: “Self–advancing action could be expected from the middle class, but not the poor; the responsibility for self–defeating action (or inaction) could legitimately be lodged only with society, never with the poor.” Their critique of individual moral virtues eventually became a wholesale rejection of any role for personal responsibility in fighting poverty—a position that characterized much thinking about poverty a generation ago. Schwartz finds this view most prominent in the work of William Ryan’s Blaming the Victim (1971) and Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward’s Regulating the Poor (1971). The titles tell the story—to stress individualistic virtues is to blame the poor for their condition and amounts to a form of “social control.”
There is a good deal of irony in the shifting attitudes of reformers and radicals toward the sources of poverty. For the nineteenth–century immigrant poor, Schwartz argues, structural reforms were actually more important than the moral reformers supposed. The urban immigrant poor were poor because they were immigrants, not because they were lazy or profligate, and so they were less in need of training in the virtues than they were of political and economic reform. But today, after extensive structural reforms have been enacted and extensive public money spent on poverty–fighting programs, the self–defeating behavior of the poor plays more of a role in their poverty than was true earlier. The analysis and teaching of the nineteenth–century moral reformers is more pertinent today, Schwartz believes, than it was then.
Schwartz asks whether the difference in ethnic composition of the two poverty populations matters. Can an urban antipoverty strategy designed for European immigrants offer useful guidance for today’s urban poverty population, which is disproportionately, though not predominantly, African American? In large measure, the nineteenth–century urban poor began to act more virtuously because they were expected to do so. Schwartz notes that the black poor of the late twentieth century have been less receptive to a message of virtue. That is true in part because racial discrimination has often unjustly denied them success as a reward for virtue. It is also the case, however, that other Americans have been more hesitant than their nineteenth–century predecessors to convey the message of personal responsibility. One might say that the black urban poor (to paraphrase a line often used by President Bush) suffer under the soft bigotry of low moral expectations. Schwartz hopefully calls attention to figures within today’s black community—Floyd Flake and Eugene Rivers, for example—who are unafraid to emphasize the role of moral responsibility among the poor in fighting poverty.
Schwartz’s book is a valuable contribution to the growing literature on poverty and welfare reform, and his emphasis on teaching and insisting upon personal responsibility among the poor is gaining a wide consensus across the political spectrum (al though one can expect the professional social work guild to be the last on the train). The key public policy argument now is less over whether personal responsibility is to be taught to and expected of the poor than how and by whom it is to be taught—and how government can most effectively aid such efforts. The key debate as to the how is now over the extent to which the virtues can be promoted by incentives (the view of William Julius Wilson) as opposed to mandates (the view of Lawrence Mead).
As to who can most effectively deliver the message, Schwartz observes that in the nineteenth century the emphasis on personal responsibility was more effectively received among immigrant Irish Catholics when it was conveyed by the Catholic, preferably Irish Catholic, hierarchy than by Anglo–Saxon Protestants. That lesson lies at the heart of the current discussion over “charitable choice.” The public policy task now before us is two–fold: first, to figure out how to incorporate the insight that who delivers the message matters, and second, to discern how best to take advantage of the numerous “faith–based” and local community organizations that can most effectively address the needs of the poor, including the need for personal responsibility. That, no doubt, is one of the major tasks before the new White House Office on Faith–Based and Community Initiatives.
Keith Pavlischek is a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice in Washington,