Facing Down Poverty With a Wealth of Moral Instruction
By Heather Mac Donald
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

   LONG BEFORE federal bureaucrats seized on the dubious idea of sending monthly checks to poor, unwed mothers for each new baby they had, private citizens proposed a very different solution to urban poverty. The poor didn't need handouts, argued 19th-century charity workers. They needed temperance, diligence, thrift and other bourgeois virtues.
   Alas, such arguments were washed away, over time, by waves of "progressive" movements -- the New Deal, the War on Poverty, the crusades of professional social workers and poverty advocates. Now George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism promises a revival. With exquisite timing, "Orphan Trains" by Stephen O'Connor, and "Fighting Poverty With Virtue" by Joel Schwartz recover the lost tradition of 19th- and early 20th-century moral reform and show its urgency for today's inner-city poor.
   Antebellum Americans looked with equal parts admiration and horror at the nation's exploding cities. Manhattan's Broadway, for instance, served as the backdrop for a daily parade of finery and splendor. But only a few blocks away, in the Five Points slum, murder, prostitution, drunkenness and disease festered in the alleys and tenements and, it was believed, threatened to engulf the city.
   Nineteenth-century reformers responded with a moral crusade. They acknowledged the contributions of environment to slum life and worked to improve housing, labor conditions and the schools. But they also believed that self-destructive behavior caused the poor's persistent problems. So they set out to help tenement residents develop the self-discipline and diligence that would lift them out of poverty.
   The most charismatic of these thinkers was Charles Loring Brace, enthrallingly portrayed in Mr. O'Connor's "Orphan Trains." Brace was one of those "expansive natures" so characteristic of his age, who seized on moral challenges with an inextinguishable passion.
   Brace visited the poor in their chaotic homes and talked to them about God's love, the evils of alcohol and the urgency of shielding their daughters from prostitution. America, he instructed, offered opportunity to anyone with a little education and the willingness to work -- no one should give up hope. And then he would return to his own chambers hopeless and defeated.
   The adults, he concluded, could not be saved; the only real option was salvaging their children. In 1853, Brace founded the Children's Aid Society, which had one overriding goal: to build character. The society created a lodging house for the city's newsboys, who often lived on the streets in flight from violent, alcoholic parents. Despite the boys' meager income, the lodging house charged a few pennies for room and board so as to preserve the boys' "sturdy independence."


   Most famously, the society sent orphaned, abandoned or runaway children to homes outside Manhattan's slums, the majority in the West and Midwest. The aim was not mere physical distance from slum culture but moral distance. The children were expected to work and earn their keep, but the society intended that they be adopted by their host families and given a Christian upbringing. Mr. O'Connor tries to tar the "orphan trains" as disrespectful to slum families and hurtful to children; it is a testament to the vivid honesty of his chronicle, however, that readers will likely reach the opposite conclusion.
   Brace may have given up on reforming adults, but his contemporaries kept on trying. In "Fighting Poverty With Virtue," Joel Schwartz introduces three other 19th-century social workers -- Joseph Tuckerman, Robert Milham Hartley and Josephine Shaw Lowell -- who sought to promote virtue in the urban poor through such institutions as savings banks and temperance societies. Unfortunately, he relegates crucial information on their lives and work to a brief appendix, allowing them to appear in the book as nearly interchangeable talking heads.
   Mr. Schwartz's chronicle comes alive, however, when he takes up America's black reformers -- Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Their willingness to urge hard work and personal responsibility in the face of vicious discrimination shows an astounding, heartbreaking faith in America's ideals. Unlike today's race-hustlers, they condemned with equal fervor racial injustice, on the one hand, and black crime and immorality, on the other.
   The legacy of Washington and DuBois was swallowed up by a counterattack that began with the Progressives early in the 20th century and reached its apogee in the 1960s and 1970s. Professionalized social workers and poverty advocates announced that asking the poor to help themselves was a form of "blaming the victim." Ghetto residents needed income transfers, they claimed, not self-control.
   In fact, argues Mr. Schwartz, character-building is more critical today than ever, since the inner-city poor have drifted even farther from bourgeois virtues than their 19-century counterparts. In a society as rich and opportunity-filled as ours, the long-term poor by definition will possess few of the habits that advancement requires.
   Mr. Schwartz is rightly cautious about how successful such an effort will be, however, since today's reformers face a reality -- the central reality of inner-city poverty -- that the Victorian reformers did not: the disappearance of the two-parent family. With the elites running as fast as they can from any value judgment about illegitimacy, it will be no easy task to marshal the moral authority to revive marriage. Indeed, it will require the humanitarian fire of a Charles Loring Brace.

Ms. Mac Donald is the author of "The Burden of Bad Ideas" (Ivan R. Dee) and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Suggested reading:        
By Joel Schwartz
(Indiana, 353 Pages, $39.95)
By Stephen O'Connor
(Houston Mifflin, 362 Pages, $27)