Social Solutions to Poverty:
America's Struggle to Build a Just Society
A book by Scott Myers-Lipton


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 Scientific Charity (Charity Organization Societies)




Scientific charity built on Americans’ notion of self-reliance, limited government, and economic freedom. Proponents of scientific charity shared the

poorhouse advocates’ goals of cutting relief expenses and reducing the number

of able-bodied who were receiving assistance, as well as the moral reformers’

goal of uplifting people from poverty through discipline and religious education

via private charity. In this model, individuals responded to charity and

the government stayed out of the economic sphere. Individuals were seen as

rational actors who freely made decisions based on their own self-interest and

who were responsible for how they fared economically. Scientific charity fit

well with the post–Civil War concept of social Darwinism, which held that

humans were in competition and the strong survived and thrived while the

weak did not. Not surprisingly, Charity Organization Societies were generally

opposed to unions.


Two of the leading advocates for Charity Organization Societies were Josephine Lowell and S. Humphrey Gurteen. Lowell, who was from a radical

abolitionist family, believed that idleness was a major cause of poverty, and

she advocated giving those who requested relief a labor test (such as breaking

stones or chopping wood) before they received private charity. During her life,

she developed several principles to guide her social reform work. One of her key

principles was that “charity must tend to develop the moral nature of those it

helps.” Lowell opposed both local government relief and almsgiving (individual

giving directly to the poor) since she felt this practice did not morally uplift the

people and created dependency. She felt that charity agents and visitors could

provide a personal relationship conducive to helping needy individuals instead

of treating them as “cases.” Lowell thought “that each case must be dealt with

radically and a permanent means of helping it to be found, and that the best

way to help people is to help them to help themselves.”


Gurteen provided many practical ideas to implement organized Charity

Organization Societies. Gurteen’s plan was to have various groups already

providing services to the poor coordinate their efforts. There would be a

central office that served as a charity clearinghouse where “friendly visitors”

(COS agents) involved in investigating the poor would meet to compare

notes to determine who was worthy of relief and who was an imposter. This

collaboration would result in a complete registry of every person in the city

who was receiving public or private assistance. The goal of this organized approach was to stop providing relief to the undeserving poor but continue to

provide the deserving poor with the assistance to solve their own problems.

Gurteen believed that COS would end outdoor relief, stop pauperism, and

reduce poverty to its lowest possible level.

Myers-Lipton, p. 68-69


 (Excerpted from “Social Solutions to Poverty” © Paradigm Publishers 2006)


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