Joel Schwartz.
Fighting Poverty with Virtue:
Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000
Indiana University Press.
354 pages. $39.95

No less an authority than Hegel warns, “Talk about virtue . . . borders on empty rhetoric.” Why? Because in a well-organized society, institutions effortlessly guide each citizen’s behavior such that “in order to be virtuous . . . he has simply to follow the well-known and explicit rules of his own situation.” In such a society, virtue is “actualized,” and there is no need to exhort citizens with “argumentative and expository talk.”

One might say that Joel Schwartz’s book, Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000, is a history of exactly the sort of rhetoric Hegel scorned. But then, the several generations of social critics who are Schwartz’s subjects were concerned with societies that were not exactly well-organized. The desperate slums of America’s industrialization, the inner-city ghettos of the 1960s, and today’s underclass neighborhoods — none qualified as what Hegel called an “existing ethical order.” Then again, the United States as a whole perhaps never so qualified. A history of how Americans have thought about poverty and virtue will, then, necessarily be a history of talk and rhetoric. The question is whether Schwartz manages to extract from this history some sense of how American society could be better ordered with respect to its poor.

The centerpiece of Schwartz’s effort is his reexamination of the thought of four reformers whose careers stretch over the nineteenth century: Joseph Tuckerman, a Unitarian minister and founder of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism (spp) in Boston in 1835; Robert M. Hartley, a successful Presbyterian merchant who in 1843 established the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (aicp); Charles Loring Brace, another Unitarian minister whose organization was the New York Children’s Aid Society (cas), founded in 1853; and Josephine Shaw Lowell, whose very active life included organizing the New York Charity Organization Society (cos) in 1882. All these activists worked within a tradition of “moral reform” whose central premise was that most poverty is caused by the vicious behavior of the poor.

For example, a report written for an earlier incarnation of Hartly’s aicp listed the nine causes of nine-tenths of the poverty in New York City: ignorance, idleness, intemperance, extravagance, imprudence, gambling, theft, prostitution, and dependency. Since such moral factors, as belief went, were the underlying causes of poverty, simply relieving the physical wants of the poor was no solution to their situation. Thus, one early moral reformer not mentioned in Schwartz’s book, William Ellery Channing, wrote, “The condition of the poor deserves sympathy; but let us not, by exaggeration of its pains, turn away our minds from the great inward sources of their misery.” To that era’s reformers, those inward sources were vices, and unless they were overcome, charitable efforts would leave the main evil of poverty untouched while creating dependents — or paupers, in the vocabulary of the time. Lowell — who emerges as the most thoughtful of the moral reformers discussed in the book — once stressed the primacy of avoiding pauperism as follows:

Could all men be made comfortable and happy by a charity so extended that it would amount to an equal division of the wealth of any given community, I should welcome the measure with my whole heart; but it has been proved, and surely it scarcely needed proving, that no amount of money scattered among people who are without character or virtue, will insure even physical comfort.

Thus, the moral reformers developed a range of programs that sought to suppress vice and inculcate virtue. To encourage poor youths to work, Brace’s cas founded more than 20 industrial schools and in other ways trained his clients in employable skills. Lowell’s cos functioned as a job placement center. Brace and Hartley sought to promote temperance by opening nonalcoholic reading rooms as alternatives to saloons and by organizing antidrink societies. Reformers associated with Tuckerman’s spp established New York’s first savings bank to encourage thrift, and a committee of the cos established another savings scheme, the Penny Provident Fund.

In sum, the moral reformers fought poverty by trying to change the vicious behavior, or reinforce the virtuous behavior, of individual poor people. Alcoholics were encouraged to sober up, the improvident to save, the idle to work. An obvious critique of this agenda is that it assumes that the poor have control over their situation, which often is simply not true. Someone thrown out of work by the depression of 1893 was not “idle” in the sense of not wanting to work. More likely, he was looking for work but remained unemployed. Improvident families in such a situation probably did not have enough income to save — or, very possibly, to eat or house themselves properly. Alcoholism can be a result, rather than a cause, of a harsh life. Can contemporary readers take seriously the prescriptions of would-be reformers who overlooked what are now called “underlying social conditions”?


Schwartz partly defends his subjects against this line of criticism. First, he argues that at least some of the moral reformers did support social programs designed to restructure society to the benefit of the poor. Brace supported social insurance; Lowell was an advocate of unionization and collective bargaining. They saw such social programs as facilitating the poor’s pursuit of the virtues of saving and work. Second, Schwartz argues that, given nineteenth-century political and economic realities, the moral reformers were right to emphasize individual uplift and make structural reform very much a secondary consideration. The nineteenth-century world was too poor, too dominated by hostile political interests, for a thoroughgoing social reform agenda to be a realistic goal in the short or even the medium run. Schwartz describes the situation of the moral reformers concerning structural reform as follows:

As we have seen, the moral reformers were driven almost ineluctably to support structural reform as an extension of their program. . . . Nevertheless, it must also be admitted that the most far-reaching, significant structural reforms . . . cannot be regarded as prominent goals of any of the moral reformers, with the possible exception of Brace. I do not mean this as a criticism, since the moral reformers’ careers predated the impetus to enact policies like these. . . . Nevertheless, structural reform has to be regarded as a tangential concern of the moral reformers, not a primary one: the primary goal was to make the poor less poor by making them virtuous.

Schwartz has to weave a careful argument if he is to convince us that the moral reformers’ concern with virtue is relevant to contemporary social policy. First, he has to dispel the notion that these reformers were merely, as he puts it, “preachers content to compose paeans to the virtues for the benefit of the poor.” To do this he must show that the moral reformers not only sought to inculcate virtuous behavior among the poor, but also fought for structural reforms. At the same time, too much emphasis on these social concerns of the reformers will not do, because Schwartz has to argue that significant structural reform was beyond the ken of nineteenth-century politics. Indeed, Schwartz writes that “precisely because changes on a macroeconomic level were beyond the reach of reformers and the poor, it made sense for the reformers to urge changes on the microeconomic level that arguably were within the reach of the poor.” On one hand, the moral reformers’ deemphasis of structural reform has to be legitimated by showing that such reforms were not possible. On the other hand, such attention as the moral reformers did pay to structural reform has to be stressed in order to acquit them of blindness to social concerns.

Schwartz is aware that he is engaging in a delicate historiographic balancing act. He writes of “the irony of moral reform” — that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “the structural changes that the moral reformers emphasized less were probably more important in reducing poverty than the moral virtues that they emphasized more.” But in the late twentieth century, “the virtues commended by moral reformers fell into disrepute just when they might have been most effective in reducing poverty — as prosperity greatly increased in tandem with a newfound commitment to expanding opportunities for the disadvantaged.” This situation — in which policy never achieves an optimal mix of struggle for social justice and inculcation of individual virtue — Schwartz dubs “the cultural contradiction of poverty.”

The subtle portrait Schwartz paints of the moral reformers is very useful, but perhaps not in the way most readers would expect. The book is not, and does not set out to be, a rehabilitation of the social reformers’ reputations. As Schwartz makes clear, and as his own theory of the irony of moral reform implies, even after all is said and done, the nineteenth-century moralists had an insufficient grasp of the social dimensions of the problems they faced. On this score, in fact, they deserve rather more criticism than Schwartz deals out. The problem is not so much that they did not expend more effort fighting to develop a proto-welfare state; the early nineteenth century, at least, was just not ready for social security, unionization, and the rest of the progressive agenda. The issue is rather that the way the moral reformers thought about virtue was too narrow. They conceived of virtue as a matter of individual behavior. But virtuous behavior is not entirely self-regarding in this sense: The benefits of my virtuous behavior fall not only on me, but also on society as a whole. This is most obvious in the case of temperance. The principle again arises with regard to another nineteenth-century virtue that the moral reformers advocated but that Schwartz does not discuss: cleanliness. If I drink to excess, the accidents I may cause damage not only me, but you, too. If I am unclean, I am risking your health as well as mine. Insofar as I practice the simple virtues of cleanliness and temperance, I benefit you as well as myself.

Work perhaps does not necessarily generate such clear positive externalities. But if we understand how the moral reformers thought of work, we can see that it necessarily has a public character. The moral reformers insisted that pauperism — the failure to work — undermines “character,” and that work builds character. But work implies exchange — making things that no one wants and are therefore worthless is not work but a waste of time. I can work only if others, with whom I can exchange my goods, are working as well. Thus, when I work, I make it possible for others to work and thereby afford them, as well as myself, an occasion to demonstrate character. The moral reformers may have identified the qualities of character lacking among the poor, but they conceived of the virtues in a thin and one-dimensional fashion.

If this sounds as if I wished the moral reformers had developed some of the Hegelian implications of their best thinking, so be it. Some near-contemporaries of the moral reformers — especially the followers of T.H. Green and other neo-Hegelians — had a better appreciation of the social dimensions of virtue. For example, here is Green lecturing on the nature of virtue:

All virtues are really social; or, more properly, the distinction between social and self-regarding virtues is a false one. Every virtue is self-regarding in the sense that it is a disposition, or habit of will, directed to an end which the man presents to himself as his good; every virtue is social in the sense that unless the good to which his will is directed is one in which the well-being of society in some form or other is involved, the will is not virtuous at all. The virtues are . . . in some way contributory to social good.

It is interesting to note how this deeper understanding of the social aspect of virtue affected Green’s own reform agenda. Like the moral reformers, he was a passionate opponent of drink and intemperance. But he also supported English land reform measures designed to break up large estates and create a class of small proprietors.

The point here is not that the moral reformers, like Green, should have supported such particulars as land reform (which, in any case, hardly applied to the American situation). Many of the social reform nostrums of the nineteenth century would actually prove to be problematic. Rather, the point is that one wishes that the moral reformers thought about poverty in a more complex way. If they had had a deeper grasp of how radically the social and individual aspects of virtue are intertwined, they might, of course, have placed greater emphasis on structural reforms. More important, it would have been clearer to later generations that structural reforms had always been on the agenda and had merely been temporarily deferred until a more propitious time. In that case, the reaction against moral reform, which Schwartz traces in the middle third of his book, might well have been less dramatic and less purely negative.


Today’s readers will probably hold in higher regard those contemporaries of the moral reformers who did better appreciate both the individual and social aspects of poverty. But Schwartz’s most important point has little to do with what we are now to think of the moral reformers. Instead, he extracts the right lesson from their efforts. He writes:

The perspective of the moral reformers offers some guidance for the contemporary policy debate. The recent debate about poverty has too often been sterile and counterproductive because of a shrill insistence that only one factor — whether moral or structural-environmental — can legitimately and properly be addressed. By contrast the moral reformers were admirably willing to consider both moral and structural-environmental factors in their explanation of — and remedies for — poverty.

Again, I think Schwartz is giving the moral reformers a bit too much credit. But he is also rightly emphasizing what should be an elementary methodological point. As he and others of us familiar with the literature know, current writings on poverty and homelessness frequently fix on a single factor — either structural or individual — as the cause of the problem.

Liberal analysts usually focus on spatial mismatches, housing squeezes, macroeconomic conditions, and related structural glitches. They often fail to consider whether, for example, a housing squeeze of a given tightness can result in more or less homelessness depending on the individual characteristics of those it affects. Similarly, conservatives are sometimes prone to focusing exclusively on worrisome personal behaviors. Some writers will dwell on, say, the relatively high rates of mental illness among the homeless and insist that this simply must be the main cause of their plight. They overlook the fact that most of the mentally ill are housed and that still more would be housed if more cheap apartments were available.

Schwartz’s important historical review makes clear that no account of any social problem can be entirely structural or entirely individualistic. To see these accounts as polar opposites and then come down on one side or the other is to oversimplify. The individual/structural dichotomy should be recast as a heuristic device that implies both factors are at work in every social phenomenon. Either one may be more significant in a particular context, but neither ever “swallows up” the other, and both deserve full consideration.


Speaking of virtues, Schwartz’s book has many others not discussed in full here. The sections on “Why Moral Reform Could Be Implemented” and “Why Moral Reform Was Hard to Achieve,” for example, are essential reading for policy analysts interested in programs that seek to change what we nowadays might call “dysfunctional behaviors.”

Briefly put, it made sense to preach temperance, work, and savings to the nineteenth-century poor, because the poor already accepted those virtues. They simply needed help practicing them. Today, one wonders whether recognition of the virtue of, say, temperance is nearly as deep among the poor, or any other class for that matter. Moreover, as Schwartz also understands, the obstacles to moral reform seem to be as great as they ever were. The sociological gulf between likely reformers and their intended audiences is probably as great as it was in the nineteenth century. And the poor are more heterogeneous in terms of race, language, religion, and ethnicity, complicating the always-difficult task of getting a message across to them.

Has the time for moral reform come again? Schwartz’s fine book chronicles the ups and many downs of inculcation of virtue as a policy tool. Should we therefore stop trying? Probably not. After all, patience is a virtue.

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