The Poor Among Us: A History of Social Welfare in New York

The Poor Among Us by Ralph Da Costa Nunez

thepooramongus_frontcover

There used to be a weird law in New York City; no person of the Hebrew faith could take charity from a Christian, they could only be a burden to their own people. Peter Stuyvesant made that law in the Colonial era, because he didn’t want Spanish Jewish refugees from Brazil coming in (he didn’t like any other minority, for that matter) and becoming parasites (New Amsterdam had its share of layabouts.) Few Jews complained, they did okay without Christian handouts. But keep in mind that that Jewish people, in any city worldwide, have a network of mutual support and benevolent societies. A lot of people do not.

Ralph Da Costa Nunez, a Columbia University professor, has written The Poor Among Us as a history book about New York City, but specifically about how we take care of the poor. He divides it into general eras; the Colonial days, the industrial age, post US Civil War, the progressive era, the Depression, post WW2, and so on. With each age in our history, he shows how poverty reflected the economics of the time. Take for instance how in the 1700’s, it was the churches that were empowered to remove children from their families. There were poor families, of that there’s no doubt, but there were not as many. Irish immigration hadn’t yet swamped the city, and even after it did, there were still jobs. Today there’s NYCHA, homeless shelters, and food stamps, but in the 1700’s, it was unheard of. Where would the colony have gotten the money to pay for it?

In the chapter on Catholic and Jewish charities, I could see another comparison between the ages. The Jewish and Catholic orphan societies weren’t based on altruism as much as avoiding embarrassment. The established Jews and Irish didn’t want the new arrivals to create an image of backwardness, so they said “we’ll pay for their education,” and the effort altogether worked. The kids got regular classes, plus job training, and it worked so well because there were jobs for printers, shoemakers, dressmakers, tailors, etc. But today, it won’t work. The industries are gone, and shoes and dresses are made in China. Take for example the animator Ralph Bakshi; he went to the High School of Art and Design, learned cartooning, and got a job in animation. But today animation is computerized, and there are fewer jobs in the field. That high school served a purpose in that it supplied people for jobs in commercial art, but that’s no longer the case. There’s less demand now for commercial illustrators.

This book is well-researched, and I applaud the massive number of primary sources that he managed to locate. I also appreciate how he doesn’t blame the government or racism for everything. Most of the blame falls on economics, and when government is blamed, it’s usually for lack of foresight. New York City never considered what would happen if the jobs vanished from the garment district, nor did they consider the effect of rising heating costs. For the last decade the city never considered the effect of a power outage in the Metro North railway and….oh wait, they had a power shutdown last week! People can’t get to work. But didn’t we have a transit strike 8 years ago? Right before Christmas? Do I recall huge traffic snarls that made the Queens-Manhattan drive a two hours slog?

I don’t necessarily agree with those fanatics who say we should “prepare for doomsday,” but I do think we need to be ready for a transit strike, garbage strike, school bus driver strike, rising fuel cost, etc. All these things will come down hard on the families that already struggle. Then again, politicians never really learn from mistakes, now do they?

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