In the mid-19th century, Charles Loring Brace, the son of a Connecticut school teacher, moved to New York, determined to do something about the wave of children he saw living on the streets of lower Manhattan, selling newspapers and shining shoes.
Brace opened the Newsboys Lodging House at 9 Duane St., in the building then owned by the New York Sun. At this location, he would do much more than provide a clean bed. He opened savings accounts for the kids, gave them books and healthy food — all part of a larger vision.
“Those who have much to do with plans of human improvement,” he wrote, “see how superficial and comparatively useless all assistance or organization is which does not touch . . . the inner forces which form character.”
Many of his charges (including girls, housed in their own “industrial school”) went on to prosper.
“They had earned property; some received good salaries, most were married and were respected in their communities.” They had benefited from the approach, which he described as “to avert rather than cure.”
This philosophy was practiced throughout much of American history through non-governmental groups we today call civil society. New York’s Henry Street Settlement, for example, not only taught English but how to manage a healthy household. Indeed, my own father was placed in foster care and looked after by a purely private, philanthropic enterprise, Philadelphia’s Juvenile Aid Society. A wealthy volunteer would visit him and emphasize the importance of such virtues as “honor, confidence, trust, self-control, truth, honesty and good manners.”
he common thread in all this? A focus more on the formative than the reformative.
Some today denigrate such values as “bourgeois norms,” but they were actually values promoted to the poor by established, affluent Americans who understood they were the keys to upward mobility and life satisfaction. “By constant saving and hard work,” Brace told his newsboys, “you can make an honest living and have no reason to be ashamed and no fear of the law.”
We have come to neglect the promotion of these values. This is largely because our civil society has been changed, drawn into an embrace with a vast social-service state on which government spends tens of billions of dollars — even as the country struggles with an opioid crisis and a retreat, by prime-age adults, from work and purpose.
We are good at funding programs and paying social workers to help “clients” whose lives have gone awry, whether because of substance abuse, teen pregnancy or domestic violence. At the federal level, the Administration for Children and Families disburses some $53 billion annually on such programs, which is more than the individual budgets of the departments of Justice, Treasury or Interior.
The tone and values of many of the 30,000 social-service organizations that receive some 200,000 federal grants is strikingly different than those of previous generations. ACF states its overall goal is “to support underserved and underrepresented populations” including “improving access to services.” One Detroit family-service group, meanwhile, sees as its mission “serving the advocacy needs of the broad Latino community.” Then there’s the National Coalition Building Institute, whose field director calls herself a “social-change agent.”
As she puts it in a textbook for social workers: “The most satisfying part of the work is being able to do something effective and positive about the problems of racism, sexism, classism . . . and all the other ‘isms.’ I am able to do the work that has my heart and get paid to do it. As a social-change agent and community organizer, I get to be involved with a variety of people working toward systemic change.”
At the same time, the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, the successor to the organization that raised my father, now states that helping clients gain “access to benefits” is one of its key goals. Its education efforts include gambling prevention workshops, lessons on “safe dating” and sexual-abuse prevention training.
That’s a long way from “self-control” and adherence to moral values.
It’s a change that began, not surprisingly, in the 1960s, specifically with 1962 legislation that authorized the federal government to direct funds to private, nonprofit organizations.
Progressives had previously been convinced that virtually all Americans could be drawn into the workforce — and the safety net (old-age pensions, unemployment insurance) could be tied to employment. But an explosion in the public-assistance rolls in the 1950s and early 1960s led to the view that government should fund an army of social workers to “rehabilitate” the poor. In the time since, this government-funded force has focused on every group newly defined as “marginalized,” as Hunter College political scientist Michael Polsky put it.
Today, our independent sector, which once promoted constructive virtues and values, has become a propaganda machine, preaching the structural failings of the American system, rather than counseling the poor on how to succeed within it. If you are told that America is flawed by ongoing “systemic racism,” it hardly inspires one to strive and save.
Bourgeois norms are not quaint habits of the upper class. They’re an inclusive set of virtues that offer those of all backgrounds the means to prosper. We neglect them at our risk.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images